Faith and Reason in Tension

“Faith has declined in contemporary western culture because contemporary westerners have become emotionally and imaginatively impoverished. We have ceased to care in the right way about the right things.” – C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard: An Introduction”

Reason: If anyone is to have justified beliefs in what is true, then they must believe based on evidence and argument. Faith, you have little to offer when it comes to truth-gathering.

Faith: You’re not the boss of me!

Reason: If you mean by that odd remark to claim that faith is just as relevant to truth seeking, how do you know? What evidence do you have for such a claim?

Faith: You always ask for evidence but you can’t provide evidence for the claim that you require evidence. Stop looking around for what does not exist and live your life, Reason!

Reason: But what life should I live? How can I adjudicate between alternate possible lifestyles? Either one must live by reason or by faith. It is not the case that one should live by faith. Therefore one must live by reason.  Evidence for the second premise can be put in terms of the following modus tollens: If one should live by faith then any lifestyle will do. But it is not the case that any lifestyle will do. Therefore . . .

Faith: Stop right there. I can only live the life that’s been given to me and that’s what I choose to do. Embrace life instead of sitting around mulling over pseudo-intellectual problems that have an appearance of significance!

Reason: Faith, you appear to be making truth claims. What am I supposed to do with them? I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying yourself but why tell me? If you want me to understand and, more importantly, believe, what you’re saying, I need to consider evidence provided through something that at least resembles an argument. If you disagree, why? (By the way, if you attempt to answer the ‘why question,’ you will need to use an argument to do so.)

Faith: And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
     For last year's words belong to last year's language
     And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
     To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
     Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
     In streets I never thought I should revisit
     When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
     To purify the dialect of the tribe
     And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight…

Reason: This is hopeless.

Faith: That’s the first thing you’ve said that I agree with.

Over time, well-worn intellectual debates pick up a number of elements that analysts will tend to use as a pre-analytic framework and unpack the issue in light of that framework. Many times, the framework includes the very positions being debated and analysis may proceed without questioning whether those positions are valid ways to frame the debate. In the United States, the “pro choice” versus “pro life” labels used to describe the two opposing positions on abortion may be an example. On even a cursory inspection, these labels are grossly misleading and designed to foster unfortunate caricatures that not only stagnate any forward movement politically but frame this important issue in terms that don’t allow for any analytic success (even anecdotally, it seems obviously true that most in the “pro choice” camp are not at the same time “pro death” and those on the pro life side of the question actually do not eschew significant reproductive liberties).

Are faith and reason opposed?

Characterizing the discussion about the intellectual viability of religion in terms of “faith” versus “reason” has a long history. It’s both effortless and obvious to adopt these two monikers as labels for a real conflict. But are faith and reason really opposed? Is this the right way to think about the debate? More fundamentally, is there a debate at all? As I’ve attempted to show in previous essays, I believe the answer to all these questions is yes. There is manifest evidence that there has been and presently is tension over the validity and role of religious belief in a modern worldview and there is strong historical evidence that the tension is centered around what broadly can be understood as a distinction between a rational—or in contemporary language, scientific—understanding of the nature of things and one that uses faith as the locus for understanding the essential aspects of the world.

But perhaps this distinction is only linguistic. Perhaps it is the case that all clear-thinking humans that aren’t suffering from some dysfunction and are really aimed towards seeking the truth are rational but many mistakenly create a façade which they call faith even though this term does not really refer to any actual epistemological or psychological construct. Some have argued that the ethical construct “altruism” is like this. Many, in a sort of folk-ethical way, believe they can and do sometimes act entirely for the interest of another with no self-interest involved. But, say some theorists, this is not actually possible. Any personal action, if it is goal directed and not capricious or random, ultimately is performed to satisfy some personal desire on the part of the agent performing the action. A simple bit of evidence for this is that every ethical “why” question—why did you step out in front of that car to save the cat—appears to involve answer centered on personal desire: I didn’t want the cat to die. While it seems undeniable that the hero performed a brave act involving the potential loss of her own life, the action is motivated by a personal desire to see some state of affairs come about. The cat’s life functioned as an object for the desire, not for the action. The desire should be considered the primary driver of the action at least insofar as an ethical analysis is concerned. Perhaps faith is like this.

This does not seem to be the case. Thinkers on both sides of the question that have attempted to dig into the nature of the dichotomy have isolated fundamental epistemological and psychological differences between knowledge that comes by way of a rational analysis and knowledge that is grounded on what can broadly be called faith. Some key terms I’ve thus far used to capture this distinction are: essences and existence, first-person experience and third-person descriptions, and existentialism and rationalism. These terms appear to label real differences. As we saw in James, some view faith as a psychologically isolated approach to dealing with questions about aspects of reality that reason is incapable of unpacking. Reason may have its place, but it most certainly is limited in what it can do epistemically and psychologically.

In the next few essays, I want to explore this distinction further by looking at some themes in Kierkegaard—arguably the foremost religious existentialist. Whereas James sought a both/and approach to the faith-reason dichotomy, Kierkegaard argues for an either/or  solution concluding that religion is essentially non-rational.  For Kierkegaard, the religious mode of existence is the more authentic way to live and so his distinction becomes central to his entire philosophy. It is necessary to remind the reader at this point that my central claim in this series is that proponents of religion in the contemporary West are attempting to ground their religious beliefs existentially but sustain and publicize their beliefs as a rational epistemology (and psychology). In this way, modern religionists are not pure Kierkegaardians in the strict sense but the modern Christian worldview has absorbed the spirit of Kierkegaard and seem to agree with his fundamental philosophy. By examining Kierkegaard’s thought, we may be able to gain better insight into why Western religion finds itself in the position it does and better understand where the modern debate is headed.

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