What Hath Jerusalem to do with Athens: On Faith and Reason

Philosopher Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame in an article for the New York Times’ blog The Stone explores the relationship between religious faith and philosophical inquiry. His topic resonated with me as I had an impassioned discussion with my father over this very question recently. The path of discourse seems to be a well-worn one. Just as Gutting explained how he challenges his mostly Catholic undergraduates to think about why they hold religious belief, I found the discussion with my father exploring a variety of similar topics including religious diversity, the problem of evil, philosophical arguments for and against God’s existence and inevitably personal faith.

Problems with personal faith

Personal faith. The term itself admits of an impenetrable epistemic keep. As Gutting observes, playing the “faith card” tends to be a discussion-stopper. Instead of having to wade through the morass of complex issues and incomprehensible philosophical jargon, faith leaps over the complexity and lands the claimant on apparently firm ground from which he waves confidently at the poor sap stuck in the confusion he just avoided. I understand this move very well as I employed it for years. But grounding religious belief on faith alone ends up creating a series of difficulties itself. While employing faith as an epistemic trampoline one may leap over the philosophical mire, she finds on the other side not solid ground but a sinkhole.

The argument goes something like this. Either reason is the ground for religious belief or faith is. Reason cannot be the ground for religious belief. Therefore, faith must be. The reasons given for accepting the second premise tend to have to do either with a postmodernization of truth or are based on a polemic involving the corruption of the human mind and the inability of human reason to get at truths about things eternal. Gutting explains how he quickly is able to show his students that no philosophical, scientific, or historical arguments have been given that conclusively settle questions about specific religious truth claims. The essence of this claim is about an authoritarian juxtaposition: faith is on one side and reason is on the other. To affirm reason as the final arbiter of truth, one places the person and his or her ability to use reason as the epistemic authority. To affirm faith is to place God as the final authority. (Don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work exactly but that’s how it’s been explained to me.) Since human beings are fallen and unable to see God through the light of reason, faith must be the final bulwark against skepticism or atheism.

But immediate problems arise. There is an initial challenge that is both simple on the surface and becomes more complex the more it is explored. If one is going to exercise faith in a God or religion, in which God or religion does one exercise faith? It’s a rather obvious fact that people generally have faith in the religion that is the closest to them. If you grew up in the West, you will have a much greater tendency to have faith in the Judeo-Christian God. The object of faith tends to become what is epistemically a live option for us. Yet most monotheisms teach that through faith we come to believe in the true God. But if one exercises faith in the only God or religion one has available at the time of commitment then it’s difficult to see how faith is truth-conducive.

Yes, but . . .

I’ve encountered two classes of responses to this problem. The first, and most prominent, is to cite evidence for God’s existence or the truth of Christianity. “I believe in this God because there is good evidence that proves this God exists.” To general arguments against God’s existence, believers may respond with logical problems associated with disbelief. Gutting captures the idea in this typical response by his students, “’Well, if there’s no God,’ they say, ‘how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?’” But this response lands one right back in the morass she was trying to avoid. Reason now becomes the final arbiter: I have faith in the God for which there is the most evidence: reason chooses the “right” God then one exercises faith in that God. Once this move is made, the honest person will have to contend with the messy rational arguments for and against God’s existence or for and against one’s religion. “This seems to bring us back to where we started.” as Gutting notes.

The other class of responses avoids this difficulty by rejecting the dilemma. What I’ll refer to as the existential response rejects the idea that truth plays any role in the decision to exercise faith. Faith indeed is blind and genuine faith must be blind. I posed the religious diversity problem above to an existentialist friend of mine. I asked him how, if faith is all that is required when grounding religious belief, one should decide which God to believe in. He, an admitted Christian, answered, “It doesn’t matter.” He explained that the very question I posed is misguided. Faith is not about deciding to believe in a particular God, it’s about believing in God. When religion—any religion—is a live option for a person, he or she must make the choice whether to exercise faith and that alone is what matters.

An Existentialist Response

This response may sound puzzling at first particularly when you consider that it may come from someone who confesses allegiance to a particular religious faith. It is quite sophisticated however and comes from the thought of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He attempted to change the angle from which the problem is viewed so that the puzzle dissolves. Kierkegaard argued that reason could not be used to decide the truth of matters of religion. He did not deny reason’s ability to get to truth because of some inability of the mind. Rather, he said that questions of religion and theology are so complex and difficult when viewed through the lens of reason that it would take a lifetime to sort through all the evidence and to decipher all the arguments. Even if one had a lifetime, one may not get to a conclusion that decides the matter. Gutting makes a similar point in his article. Regarding the role of philosophical arguments in deciding matters about God’s existence, he writes,

“There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals.  Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.”

There’s a problem here says Kierkegaard. Agnosticism for relatively “trivial matters” like whether there is alien life or black holes is perfectly acceptable. If one goes to his grave undecided about the truth of life on other planets, there is no great consequence. But matters of religion are not trivial. They are, in the words of Paul Tillich, matters of “ultimate concern.” Agnosticism about matters such as these could prove eternally fatal. Since reason is unable to help us sort the matter out, one must take a leap of faith. One must decide to believe in God and commit one’s whole life to Him to avoid the abyss of indecision.

But doesn’t this land us right back to the problem I raised earlier? Which God do I choose? Again here, Kierkegaard’s position is that we’re asking the wrong question. Faith is less like a choice between wrong and right and more like a commitment in which one is faithful or disloyal. In fact, exercising faith in God is similar to falling in love. In agape, reason is a non-starter. One does not tend to rationalize love (or if one does, it’s fails to be love). One does not consider all the arguments and wade through tons of evidence before deciding with whom they will fall in love. Most of the time, people know very little about the person. They, in a very real respect, take a leap of faith.

Likewise, it’s odd to speak about the “right” person where “right” means I should love this one person and it would be wrong to love any other person. While we romanticize about our “soul mate” and talk as if we’re looking for the one person fate or God has chosen for me, in reality, most people have a range of options and there isn’t one single person for whom we must look. Similarly, we don’t have the option of love anyone. We typically fall in love with a person who is in close proximity; with those who are live options for us.

Faith is very much the same primarily because faith, according to existentialism, is about a relationship not about adhering to a formal religious system (which Kierkegaard abhorred). The God one relates to is the God that is nearest, the one that is a live option. The person must choose to love or to reject that God. This, according to the existentialists is the essence of faith.

He lives within my heart

While this approach may provide a way out of the quagmire of reason, notice that it also completely privatizes faith. Faith no longer an object of public consumption or, more importantly, influence. People of like faith can come together and commune but that community has no epistemic ground to challenge another’s belief or even disbelief. In fact, this is locus of the postmodernization of religion. Postmodern epistemology focuses on the idea of truth as a product of community agreement. Within the community there is truth. But there is no such thing as Truth that transcends a particular community and applies to all communities.

Gutting closes his article discussing the Reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga. While Plantinga is not a postmodernist or an existentialist, Gutting observes that while Plantinga’s epistemology may ground a rational belief in God, it does not help specify which God or which religion is true. “Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.” Or, we could add, having faith at all. At this point, it seems that reason must play a role if one is to make strong claims that their faith community is the “right” one or the “true” one and the expect others to agree with them.

Indeed, this has been a fundamental concern of modern atheists. Some religious communities have eschewed their privatized status and gone public. Many also eschew reason and are using force--either in the form of physical force or legal force—to get others to accept their claims. When reason isn’t an option, force is the only option. And this takes us back to the question Gutting raises in his article: what does philosophy and faith have to do with one another?

Gutting’s answer seems right, “philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on [questions about why one believes], and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief.”

Further Reading

The Essential Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Howard and Edna Hong

Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga

Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity by Robert McKim


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