Faith and Reason: Dichotomy?

Faith and Reason: Dichotomy?

Those who would convince us that faith and reason are opposed to each other would have equal success convincing us that lines and circles are opposed to each other. What could be more opposite than a line and a circle that is, of course, until the line is a road and the circle is a tire. Then suddenly the two seem to work in perfect unison, as if the one was made with the other in mind. The way things sometimes appear in one’s abstract thinking compared to how they actually work in real life can often be widely different.

The ways in which faith and reason work together are manifold. The most interesting of which, in my opinion, is the way some things “get understood” by a person. There are indeed many dead-ends with rationality. Cold, calculating, objective logic works wonders in a chemical lab. But those same attributes can be killers when put to work in the real life of a real human being.

So long as we are talking about natural sciences, mathematics, and the like, the distancing that takes place between the subject (the human inquirer) and the object (the object under inquiry) is necessary. There can be no subjective feeling about 2+2 is 4. However, 2+2 is 4 was never the basis of a marriage, the ground of an ethical decision, or the horizon for questions pertaining to just vs. unjust, good vs. evil, etc. In short, the concerns that really matter to human beings are concerns that have no exact formula, no all encompassing system, and no slick syllogism. If one could apply an wholly objective approach to his or her own life, one would, by necessity, employ the same objective-distancing that the natural sciences require. But this is exactly the problem: if one could approaches life through pure objectivity he or she would cease to be a participating subject in their own life. One cannot personally distance oneself from his or her life and still pretend to be personally involved with it. As Kierkegaard saw it, this type of person becomes a “phantom of pure reason,” existing solely in the abstract realm, disembodied from the world of actual living humans.

We all know someone who intellectually knows everything about a particular subject, but either rarely or never lives in the reality of what she knows. Objectively they know such-and-such, but subjectively (or, that form of understanding that only comes through participation) they are as ignorant as an orange peel. Things pertaining to existence (or, “existential concerns”) can only be understood by existing in them. This is in fact a foundational Biblical principle.

Take for example Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-31). A father asked his first son to go and work in his vineyard. At first the son said, “I will not,” but later he regretted it and went to work in the vineyard. Then the father asked his second son to do the same and the son said, “I will go.” But he never did. Jesus then asks, “Which of the two sons did his father will?” The first son, of course. Simple? Yes. But the underlying point is not simple: If God’s will is THE truth, as the Bible claims, then the one who “knows” God’s will only in his intellect is infinitely inferior to the one who “knows” God’s will via participating in it. In short, the second son had knowledge of the truth but the first son lived in the truth. The difference is subtle, but from the Biblical perspective the two are as different as east and west.

We humans have an amazing ability to confuse our thought life with our actual life. Those who believe themselves to be Christians have only to look at their actual lives to see if they really are Christians (1 Cor 15:3). Those who are atheists have only to look at their actual lives to see if they really are atheists. You may “say” no God exists, but do “you live” as if God does exist?

Regardless, the point here is that reason is not enough for the actual, living human being. Reason has no court of higher appeal than one’s own trust – faith – in human reason (that is, unless one trusts God). Shall I marry or stay single? Reason will convince you of either choice. But, should you marry or not? Should we even use “should”? Ah, but if there is no “should” then everything falls in on its own weight, and reason itself is discredited. But I digress. What really directs a person to believe this or that, or to do this or that, is not, at root level, a matter of reason but a matter of willingness. As Christ said, there are some who love the light and some who love the dark. Based on what one loves, his or her reason will follow suit. If you love the dark, you will find the reasons to remain in the dark. If you love the light, you will find the reasons to remain in the light. But the charge of “anti-intellectual,” or “illogical,” applies to neither.

One’s deeply held beliefs about life, and their corresponding justifications, are at bottom little more than naked faith; alone and shivering in the dark, with no guarantee of its “rightness”. Reason needs faith, and faith needs reason. But this is true only for living human beings. If you are the ever elusive phantom of pure reason, this of course does not pertain to you. Please disregard.


8 thoughts on “Faith and Reason: Dichotomy?

  1. Interesting point about living our lives. Do atheists live there lives like there is no god? Made me think of what can i do better to live my life to better demonstrate my faith of Christ to him and to be an example of a true believer so that as people see me they will want to know him. Thanks again/

  2. I just had a conversation with a friend of mine (a priest and my Godfather) about reason and faith.

    I remember St. Anthonious saying something like: reasonable are those that have mind of Christ. I might be mistaking the source, but I think that’s true.

    An healthy reason can not really be separated from reason. Even in the places where you don’t operate with numbers or tangible concepts, even there reason may still be active and working.

    An interesting question is if we can speak of an apophatic reason?

    Maybe you’ve heard about Dumitru Staniloae, a famous romanian theologian. He speaks about apophatic and cataphatic knowledge, and how they’re not really so separated although distinct.

  3. Good quote. I like, “Prayer is the highest use of reason,” or something to that effect (not sure who said it).

    I’ve not read anything from Dumitru Staniloae, in fact my Orthodox reading has only just begun in the last 2 years. I’m big on the apophatic way. His thinking sounds interesting. Much of my thinking on the role and limits of reason derive from reading Socrates, Kant, Kierkegaard, and of course Scripture (it’s pretty loaded with commentary on the issue).

  4. I made a quick search on Amazon and it seems that some of the most important works of Staniloae are translated in English. Specially the 3 ‘Orthodox Dogmatic Theology’ volumes.

    It’s been a long time since I promised myself I will looking at some of Kant’s works. Unfortunately I do all the readings in my spare time, and my job gives me so little time.

  5. Save yourself the headache with Kant and pick up Kierkegaard instead. I’ve read nearly everything he wrote and wouldn’t take back a minute of the time spent doing so. Kant on the other hand, one always finishes reading him and wonders if it was a complete waste of time.

  6. They look better on shelves than in your mind 🙂 Besides, scholars won’t accept your knowledge of Heidegger unless you’ve read him in the original German. He’s sort of the pinnacle of philosophic scholarly snobbery.

    Again, best to just stick with Kierkegaard (haha).

  7. Your post reminded me of two verses: 1 Corinthians 13:13
    ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’
    Galatians 5:6
    ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’
    love is the greatest because faith and hope can only work by love, and only show themselves by love.

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