“Faith and Reason”: An Essay

I wrote this for a Christian Studies class I’m taking, so obviously there is a degree of writing-to-the-teacher/class, though I’ll let you determine exactly how much.  There are a number of basic assumptions are made in this essay, particularly regarding the dogma and primary doctrine of the church (e.g., Trinity, Atonement, etc.).  If you want to have a (constructive) debate, for the sake of discussion, those quintessential assumptions are not a good place to start.  Beyond that (within reason), I welcome discussion.  Just keep in mind the rules of internet civility (whatever that is…).  Bibliography is attached here for your viewing pleasure.

Man can come to an understanding of God in two ways: by faith and by reason.  Faith is superior to Reason, and though Man gain knowledge about God through Reason, ultimately Reason is merely a tool that supports the claims of faith.

In terms of salvific value, Faith supersedes Reason.  The Reason of fallen humans is insufficient to understand the fullness of a perfect God.  Man can prove, by Reason, that God exists through the Ontological Argument, evidence of Intelligent Design, or the Cosmological Argument.  Reason can prove Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection through demonstration of historical relevance, accurate documentation, and global impact.  Yet, alone, this knowledge cannot save.  There are aspects of God that Man cannot understand by his own power: God is infinite, Man (and his Reason) are finite.  The First Vatican Council wrote that “besides those things to which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, are incapable of being known” (IV.3).  It is these “mysteries” that Faith informs.  This Faith, then, is all that is necessary for salvation.  According to Tertullian’s On the Rule of the Heretics, “We have no need for curiosity after Jesus Christ, nor for inquiry after the gospel.  When we believe, we desire to believe nothing further.  For we need believe nothing more than ‘there is nothing else which we are obliged to believe’” (McGrath 6).

Though Man cannot know the fullness of God by Reason alone, from Reason he can understand much.  The Apostle Paul writes that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).  Man, rationally, can draw conclusions about God from his observations of the natural realm.  In this way, even those who have no knowledge of the Bible or the God of the Bible can encounter Him.  Prior to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, Reason played a still more important role in Man’s relationship with God.  According to Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, reason “was a schoolmaster to bring ‘the Hellenic mind,’ as the law, the Hebrews, ‘to Christ.’  Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ” (I.5).  Yet, people who lived before Christ were not saved through human Reason alone.  Hebrews 11 documents a list of Old Testament characters who were justified not by Reason, but by Faith.  Abraham, Rahab, David, and the others were saved because of their faith in the future Messiah, the same Messiah in whom modern Christians have faith.  God is timeless; thus, faith in a future coming, faith in a present coming, and faith in a past coming of the Messiah are equivalent.

On this matter, it is important to emphasize the fact that Reason does not bear salvific capability.  Perhaps the best known example of the overstatement of value of Reason is the Gnostic movement of the first century.  The teachings of the Gnostics are recorded in apocryphal texts, including the Gospel of Truth, which states

Since the deficiency came into being because the Father was not known, therefore, when the Father is known, from that moment on, the deficiency will no longer exist.  As in the case of the ignorance of a person, he comes to have knowledge, his ignorance vanishes of itself, as the darkness vanishes when the light appears, so also the deficiency vanishes in the perfection…And [he does] not go down to Hades, nor [has he] envy nor groaning nor death within [him]…But [he himself is] the truth; and the Father is within [him], and [he is] in the Father. (v. 18, 52)

The idea that the schism between Man and God is caused by ignorance and that intellectual enlightenment will vanquish this ignorance and restore Man to right communion with God elevates human Reason as the cause of salvation.  This, however, is contradictory to the claim of Paul, who says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Acts 10:9-10).  The principle that Reason can act as a conduit to salvation penetrates even in more traditional Christian philosophy.  Clement of Alexandria extended his claim that reason was a “schoolmaster” to bring the Greeks to salvation to say that “before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness” (I.5, emphasis added).  By Greeks, he refers to those who lived before the time of Christ; by philosophy, he refers to Logos, or Reason.  His contention is that those who lived righteously before the advent of Christ (e.g., Socrates, Aristotle) found salvation through Reason.  However, the aforementioned claim made by Hebrews 11 proves that (future-oriented) faith, not reason—even for Gentiles, such as Rahab—was the basis of “pre-Christian” salvation.

Reason, then, acts merely to support and corroborate what is known by Faith.  Inasmuch as it is certain by Faith that God exists; it is proven logically by the Teleological Argument that a God exists.  Inasmuch as it is certain by Faith that God flooded the world; it is proven by scientific and socio-historical evidence that there was likely a flood spanning many regions.  Inasmuch as it is certain by Faith that Jesus is the Saviour of Man through His resurrection; it is proven by historical evidence that a man named Jesus lived, died, and is apparently no longer dead.  Though at times Faith and Reason may seem to contradict each other (e.g., regarding miracles), they do not.  Galileo, quoting Saint Augustine, wrote in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany that “it is to be held as an unquestionable truth that whatever the sages of this world have demonstrated concerning physical matters is in no way contrary to our Bibles” (Halsall).  The perceived tension between Faith and Reason is founded in paradox—not contradiction.  As stated by the First Vatican Council, “right reason established upon the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things[, while] faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds” (IV.10).  What apparent contradictions exist are due to either human misinterpretation of Faith or Scripture or human inability to comprehend the inherently paradoxical nature of God.

Despite the apparent tensions between Faith and Reason, Reason is nevertheless a useful tool in the salvation of many Christians.  In an interview with R.C. Sproul, Stephen Meyer stated that “the heart cannot exult in what the mind rejects.”  Likewise, in Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas wrote that “when a man’s will is ready to believe, he loves the truth he believes, he thinks out and takes to heart whatever reasons he can find in support thereof; and in this way human reason does not exclude the merit of faith but is a sign of greater merit.”  For many people, especially in empirically-driven Western societies, any theory, philosophy, or religion must be supported by data, facts, and logic.  Ergo, a major role of Reason in regards to Faith is in the support of the argument for Christianity.  In Pensées, Blaise Pascal wrote that “one of those Christians who believe without proofs will not, perhaps, be capable of convincing an infidel who will say the same of himself. But those who know the proofs of religion will prove without difficulty that such a believer is truly inspired by God, though he cannot prove it himself.”  In support of this proposition, the Apostle Peter exhorts believers “always [to] be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15).  Though no one can come to salvation through Reason alone, it is for some a path that leads to Faith, which in turn bears salvation.

Pascal, famously, wrote, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”  But his thought continues: “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.  Faith is a gift of God.”  Faith, indeed, is a gift.  Yet, Reason is also a gift.  God could have made mankind robotic servants, blindly accepting and following Him, like lemmings off a cliff.  Men do follow God, indeed, sometimes to death.  But never are Men forced to follow God, and never do true followers of God follow God blindly.  Faith is not blind: it is both inspired by a purposeful God and supported by Reason—another gift of God.  Galileo wrote, “But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them” (Halsall).  Faith and Reason, then, are not contradictory or mutually exclusive; rather, they complement each other for the purpose of furthering Man’s belief in and understanding of God.

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Feel free to insult each other, forget your manners, create straw men, ignore empirical data, and commit as many other fallacies as you can, all from the cozy, anonymous protection of your keyboard.

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