How Do Faith and Reason Relate?

Many years ago while working at a small bookstore in Portland Oregon, I was thumbing through a trade journal that was lying around the stock room and I came across an interview with Billy Graham. The interview was fairly standard fare as those things go except for the answer to one question which, I recall, struck me when I read it and still strikes me 15 years later. The journal asked Graham how he developed his core Christian beliefs. His answer was both simple and, in many ways, brutally honest. He replied,

In the moonlight, I went into the woods. I opened the Bible and laid it on a tree stump. Then I knelt down and said, ‘Oh, God, I don’t understand all that is in this book. Many things seem to be contradictory. I cannot intellectually accept it, but I am going to accept it by faith as your Word, your inspired, divine Word.’ And I did accept it by faith, and I never had a doubt since then.

While this quote probably does not accurately reflect many important nuances of how Billy Graham came to faith, it does, I think, embody the caricatured tension that exists between Faithfaith and reason. More importantly, it resonates with many religious people and perhaps accurately describes how they came to have faith in God. In these short sentences, Graham describes a kind of faith that has real epistemological power and provides a window into the existential grounding on which many religious people establish or sustain religious belief—a subject I introduced in the previous post in this series. In future essays, I briefly will explore existentialist philosophy with the goal of better understanding the nature of this grounding and to further unlock the apparent tension that exists in modern discussions of faith and science.

Before exploring existentialism, I find it necessary first to attempt to define what is meant by the term “faith” and how it relates definitionally to reason or rationality. As we’ll see in the discussion on existentialism, faith as a practical idea is present in all worldviews and it would be incorrect to describe it merely as a religious concept. It does, however, take on special meaning in a religious context and religious people tend to be much more open to the role and importance it plays in their worldview.  

What is faith?

Faith is not a purely epistemic concept. When trying to define faith solely within the bounds of epistemology, the definition either ends up being inadequate or else it misses its target altogether. While some attempt a purely epistemic description, typically faith involves an affective or aspirational element. Richard Swinburne makes this point when he writes, “Some . . . writers . . . use ‘faith’ interchangeably with ‘belief’ . . . Christian faith is used to mean a belief that certain central Christian doctrines are true. For others, Christian faith is the belief that these doctrines are true accompanied by some affective component (such as a love of God or hatred of one’s sins).” 1 Many view religious faith as belief along with trusting the object of belief (God) and on this point, religious faith may differ from what we might call faith in general. Philosopher Paul Helm describes faith this way. Essentially, a person exercises faith by having a trust relationship with a person. But, says Helm, faith also involves a modicum of understanding (where understanding is a form of propositional knowledge) about the person who is trusted. After all, one has to know something about the person in whom she is trusting. A common theme in Augustine and Aquinas is the idea that faith is epistemically prior (insofar as belief in God is concerned) and understanding is a secondary, though important, augment to that faith. Faith is the means by which one exercises trust in the object of the understanding.2

Philosophical theologian and erstwhile president of the College of New Jersey (the school we now know as Princeton University) Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in his famous discourse on the religious affections treats faith similarly. The affections, he says, are one of the two main functions of the soul. The other is reason. The affections of the soul are its inclination toward an object. In fact, the affections are, in one sense, not to be distinguished from the will. They drive a person toward an object of delight. It is in this capacity that the characteristic evidence of true faith lays. He finds a place for evidence in his development of the ground of belief in the truth of the gospel. He argues that testimony cannot replace evidence when it comes to truth. He is quick to point out however that reasons and arguments alone are sufficient. In order to explain this, Edwards develops a concept of the spiritual sense. Reasons and arguments are useful only when the Spirit has worked to illuminate the understanding so the individual has eyes to see and ears to hear. He says the Spirit “unveils” the mind so it can grasp the truth. Also, he has a role for direct apprehension and intuition when it comes to religious belief. However this apprehension is not apart from any and all argument or deduction just long chains of arguments. In fact he says the deductive chain is one link long: by way of the divine glory does the mind ascend to the truth of God. Thus faith, for Edwards, is a combination of a spiritual awakening that allows one to understand the rational grounds for the truth of the gospel.3

With faith in general, the object takes on a variety of different forms. One of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, Roderick Chisholm, while being the embodiment of the analytic philosopher, still understood that even those committed to a largely rationalist approach to knowledge start with a leap of faith. Chisholm observes that certain things are presupposed when philosophers attempt to answer questions about what we are justified in believing and what were are justified in presupposing when we attempt to answer that question.  “Certain things are presupposed by the fact that one is able to ask the questions.” Be assuming that the enterprise of epistemology is possible—an assumption without which knowledge gathering could not proceed according to Chisholm—”epistemologists presuppose that they can succeed.” This means that epistemologists “have a kind of faith in themselves.” I think Chisholm’s point is that these assumptions and presuppositions must be made but they themselves cannot be proven by some prior or more basic method. It is faith that one is rational and that the rational method can get one at truth. 4 We’ll examine the other extreme when we survey existentialism. Existentialist thought puts a much greater emphasis on the faith component and minimizes (and in some cases eliminates) any role for reason in knowledge gathering.

A middle way

Between these extremes, some are attempting to find a rapprochement—a middle way. F. Leron Shults, while writing in a religious context, defines faith more broadly as “trust in the fecundity of a web of beliefs, which itself has been mediated by our experience.” This definition could apply to faith in general or religious faith in particular though the object of trust for Shults appears to remain this-worldly. He rejects the strong dichotomy between faith and reason so present in the modern discussion and argues that the scientific rejection of the “fiduciary” component of knowledge is just as misguided as the rejection of strict rationalism by religionists. Postmodern (what Shults calls “late modern”) thought provides the framework for an inter-disciplinary conversation while allowing each position to retain a kind of particularity. His model suggests that each of us can only start from our particular viewpoint which we, perhaps by necessity, must take to be objectively true. However we have learned that we must also hold that viewpoint with the knowledge that we are “socially located.” By that he means that we must recognize that not everyone holds that view and this forces us to engage in dialogue based on the “embodied desire” to learn about views that differ from our own.

Starting with Kant (who, in my opinion, is the father of postmodernism), the notion of relation became a more fundamental category than substance and accident. From Kant we get Hegel then the existentialists and the pragmatists. All these thinkers emphasized relation (Hegel with his “synthesis,” Kierkegaard with his “relation of itself to itself” and Pierce with his three classes of relations) over opposites. Shults’s point is that neither side is primary but the the product of the two together is: the relation they create when they stand in juxtaposition. The same is true of faith and reason. Shults writes, “Instead of asking whether we should begin with rational proofs and ‘add’ faith when we hit a mystery, or whether we should begin with our fideistic commitments and then ‘add’ reasonable arguments only when pressed, we might begin with the relationality within which ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are mutually constituted….Rationality involves committing oneself to a belief, and faith involves making judgments about what is trustworthy” 5 

Each of these definitions has its merits and they generally fall along similar lines. For present purposes, I think the following definition will suffice: faith is belief which has the following two properties: (1) the justification which accrues to the propositional content of the object faith necessarily will be insufficient such that it cannot be known to be true and (2) the doxastic attitude of the one having faith includes an affective component usually involving trust in the object of faith. It’s not necessary up front to specify the justificatory strength for items of faith nor is it important to specify any particular basing relations between the object of faith and other beliefs. While important, these items should surface in a broader analysis of particular faith commitments—something I’ll attempt to do in future posts.

When Billy Graham, by faith, accepted the Bible as God’s inspired, divine word, he apparently came to believe that the Bible is inspired by trusting God as the author. He, in short, made a leap of faith.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service


1. Swinburne, R. (2009). Authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church. In T. P. Flint, & M. C. Rea (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp. 25, 26. Swinburne makes the rather striking acknowledgment that “the Christian tradition has had no clear view of the nature of faith.” He also notes that Christian faith could also include the idea of “acting on the assumption that (or trusting that) Christian doctrines are true, and perhaps also believing that they are true or perhaps without that belief.” Needless to say that defining faith could either involve an epistemic component or not. If the definition of faith is unclear among theologians and philosophers, it gets even murkier outside of academic circles.

2. Helm, P. (1997). Faith and Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

3. Edwards, J. (1997). The Religious Affections. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.

4. Chisholm, R. M. (1989). Theory of Knowledge (3 ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

5. Shults, F. L. (2006). Trinitarian Faith Seeking Tranformative Understanding. In P. Clayton, & Z. Simpson (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press., p. 493

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