Faith, Reason, Knowledge II

Christ is risen!

The Union of Faith and Reason

One need not spend much time talking about faith and reason before encountering the split between them. From questions about whether or not it’s possible to “prove” the existence of God, to whether or not the Genesis account can be taken as a “literal” description of the origins of the earth especially given what science has to say about cosmogony, to questions about the place of faith and religion in public life, we generally operate under an assumption of the dichotomy between the two. These questions have further implications, such as, to speak specifically, the nature of faith itself and the whole question of “believer’s baptism.”

The relation of faith and knowledge can be seen from two crises: that of an intellectualized faith, or sometimes a pietized intellect, or, more usually, a dichotomized life of intellect versus pietism. That is to say, the intellect subsumes faith under its own rubric leading usually to a variant of secularism, or faith subsumes the intellect leading to fundamentalism, or, more usually, the intellect and faith are compartmentalized, leading to a split life of secularism and pietism. In all cases, the problem is a lack of union between faith and knowledge.

We could perhaps trace the origins of this split between the intellect and faith to Descartes’ mind-body dualism. But it’s also true that in twelfth and thirteenth century Islam as well as in St. Thomas separate provenances were given to faith and reason; though St. Thomas did affirm an overlap of the two in something like natural theology. Whatever may be the reasons, the end result is that Christian faith gets split between pious living and intellectual doctrine, which leads to neoGnostic split between belief and practice, with belief becoming something like an “optional” addendum. Clearly any conception of a split between faith and reason is ultimately untenable.

For after all Christianity is the salvation of whole persons. The task is not so much to accomplish the union of faith and reason, since if what we believe about Christian salvation is true, this is already a reality that is coming to be in ever greater fulness. Rather, the task is to seek how this union currently obtains and is realized.

At the outset, we should come to some understanding about how we should understand the terms under discussion: faith, reason, and knowledge.

By reason is often meant “intellect,” and this intellect is often divorced from mundane living. Reason usually abstracts ideas and concepts and removes them from common experience. But in so doing, reason removes itself from this daily living. This abstraction is not illegitimate. It is a part of what reason does and how it is meant to perform. The problem is in seeing reason as autonomous, as either compartmentalized and removed from faith, or as dominant over faith. As is well known, Kant helpfully showed the limitations of reason (that it cannot speak about the soul, immortality and God), but failed to go beyond his conclusions and illegitimately concluded that faith must be subsumed under reason if it was to be rational and universal.

But if, as I am proposing, reason is to be unified with faith, it must lose its autonomy. It cannot be seen in isolation, nor be unanswerable to a higher authority, whether that authority be faith, God, or what have you. Reason has an authority, clearly; it has a purview of activity. But it cannot be seen as solely authoritative. Its authority is derived. But we will speak more about this later. For now I am seeking the unity of faith and reason so as to resolve the dilemma of dichotomization.

By knowledge is usually meant something deriving from the intellect, some sort of body of organized mental concepts. But if one properly understands Christian teaching, knowledge is not just intellectual, but is also personal. The Church has never spoke of knowledge as only, mostly, or merely those things which can be intellectually, or rationally, apprehended. Rather, in the Church’s teaching, knowledge includes all of a person as seen, most strikingly, in the full and deeply intimate relationship betwen man and wife. There is a knowing that one does, not in isolation from reason, but in primarily other ways, ways in which reason plays a subservient role. One cannot reduce one’s spousal relationship to a set of theorems. But neither is this somehow not knowing. It is a knowing that transcends reason, and gives, as it were, its own organized body of understandings. This is not to say that reason plays no role in such a knowing, for clearly it does, but that it does not play the dominant role. And it is this conception of knowledge that most clearly gives us the place of union of faith and reason and the means of resolving the split and imbalance between faith and reason. More on that in a moment.

By faith is usually meant belief, which entails some body of intellectual concepts. But this is not the way that the faith was talked about from the beginning. For Christians faith was (and is) always a way of life, not merely intellect. The Church has never limited Faith to the intellect, but has always characterized the faith as a way of life, encompassing all of a man and his life. But this does not mean, of course, that faith is split off from reason, for there are, indeed, certain intellectual understandings that Christians are required to have. But it has always been the Church’s practice to invite converts into a way of life prior to their having an intellectual understanding of the faith. One participates in the life and practices of the Church, then one goes on to understanding. There is no split, nor need it necessarily be the case that we conclude that faith is more authoritative than reason. For after all the Church is not submitting that understanding is nonessential, but that in a temporal process, participation comes first.

So how, in the end, does one unify faith and intellect? I think it clearly the case that this can only be done in the heart. By heart, of course, I do not mean some sort of little container of emotion. The Christian understanding of the heart is that it is the seat of the whole person, the point at which the entire human person (intellect, faith, action, will, emotions, body) is unified. We moderns have given to the brain something of a mystical being: it somehow is the center of bodily activity and of the mind. But the Christian teaching is that the seat of the human is the heart. The heart is more central physically than the brain, and it contains within it, not only all the necessary physical processes of circulation but also those of willing, emotions, faith and intellect. I am not suggesting that somehow we do not think or emote with our brains (and minds), but rather that all these processes pass through the heart, as does the physical blood which permeates every cell of our body.

The heart, then, is the place and power of the unification of faith and reason. The heart is that authority, if you will, to which faith and reason answer, if a human is to be centered and whole. But the heart is not an end or an authority unto itself. It, too, has an authority to which it answers, the Person of Christ, whom it both believes and knows to be the Truth, the Person from whom we derive our ability to reason and the motivation to believe.

Consequently, it comes to be seen that reason cannot provide knowledge, or rather the only knowledge that reason can provide is partial and limited. Kant was right in his analysis, but wrong in his conclusion. For as I hope is already partly evident, faith itself can provide knowledge, if that knowledge is a complement to and different in quality from that of reason.

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