Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Faith vs. Reason (Scripture, Tradition, and Reason: Conclusion)

“Reason is 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.” — Martin Luther, Tischreden (1569)
"Fides quaerens intellectum"  (Faith seeking understanding.) — St. Anselm
What is the relation between faith and reason?  Is there one?  In the previous posts on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason I have discussed the importance of reason in interpreting revelation, a revelation that at some level be accepted on faith.  But someone will no doubt object, "How can you know anything from faith?"

I would respond with a question, "How can you know anything without faith?" Because knowing something requires, first of all, an implicit faith, a trust, in the means of knowing.  It requires faith in one's own intellect and reason, and indeed in intellect and reason themselves.  It requires faith in one's senses, in sight hearing, taste, touch, and smell.  It requires faith in other people who write and talk. Sometimes that faith proves misplaced, and then reason helps us to know who and what is trustworthy, and who or what is not. But still, knowledge requires the exercise of faith, and thus faith becomes a means of knowing. 

Our knowledge of the physical realm is what Aristotle called "physics".  How we know what we know, what we can deduce about being from the physical realm, and what we can know by the exercise of reason on the non-sensory objects of our intellect, Aristotle called "metaphysics."   Now there have been philosophers who have tried to dispense with metaphysics.  The problem here, as the reader should see, is that the very exercise to dispense with it must be of necessity an exercise in the thing itself. Metaphysics is not something from which you can escape.  And denying the role of faith by denying metaphysics is something that will not work. 

We have good reason to have faith in natural science, with its means of knowing.  However, natural science is not the only basis of our knowing, both for practical, and for metaphysical reasons. As examples, I know my friend in a way that cannot be entirely explained by natural science, and I know that an exercise in pure mathematics has a given solution, even though there is no sensory phenomenon which will prove it.

Things also happen, which our reason tells us make sense, and really did happen, but whose causation we cannot explain.  That this should be so is not surprising.  Our senses are limited, as is our knowledge of the world around us.  Then, even ordinary things, which we may be able to explain on a scientific level quite satisfactorily, nonetheless bring us a sense of wonder, and access parts of us which a dry rationality cannot.  In either case, sometimes we have an experience, of beauty, of a transcendent meaning, or of a transcendent purpose, which raise us out of ourselves in ways we cannot imagine could have happened.  Some of this we would certainly categorize as religious experience, that is of a super-human reality, or more narrowly, of a transcendent and uncreated beauty, reality, and goodness.  Faith in this kind of experience as a form of knowing is religious faith. 

If religious experience provides us with some form of knowledge, then it is as accessible to reason as any other form of knowledge: there is no such thing as knowledge derived from religious faith which is super-rational, even if the object of that knowledge may transcend the limits of our reason.*  God gave us our reason as essential to our knowing.  Any attempt therefore, to know something by religious faith without employing reason (as suggested by Martin Luther in the quote above) is to try to act contrary to our God-given nature, and the results of this cannot but be destructive.  I would suggest that religious fundamentalism, which has proved so destructive in our history, is a result of just such an attempt.

Christian faith is based on a particular religious experience, namely that of Jesus' disciples who experienced him as bodily risen from the dead after he had been executed by crucifixion.  The Bible, the Christian religious scriptures, includes the testimony of the disciples to this experience.  Now, if historical science is at all trustworthy, then we can say that history tells us that the disciples truly did believe that Jesus had died, and that they had seen him alive, in the flesh, able to be seen and touched, able to function bodily, such as eating in their presence.  This was an experience that deeply changed them.  It was such that they were happy to give their lives in order to bear testimony to it, and many of them did.  Since then many Christians throughout the centuries have given such testimony, and have engaged in many selfless acts of love for their fellows because of this testimony.  Christian faith is based upon putting trust in this witness, and in the God whom we believe to be its cause, and whom we trust we know through this common experience of Jesus' resurrection. 

*One useful point that theologian David Brown makes (in his book, The Divine Trinity) is that if Christians accept Christian religious experience as a source of knowledge, they must also accept the religious experience of others as a source of knowledge (which does not mean we have to accept the theological or philosophical conclusions they draw from this experience). 

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