Are Faith and Reason Opposed?

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In the midst of the 21st Century it is easy for a person to feel as though they are living in an age of unprecedented reason and skepticism that is causing the extermination of religious fairy tales. The likes of Richard Dawkins, the leader of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” are quick to espouse the idea that molecules-to-man Darwinism is the answer to all of life’s greatest questions, and that the delusion of a deity is now dead in all academic circles. However, this attitude is somewhat new to Western academia, and there is much to be learned from the scholarly predecessors of the West in terms of reconciling the alleged fairy tales of religion with the world according to reason (which, much to the chagrin of Richard Dawkins, includes much more than issues of biology). In the tradition of the West there is a prevalent mindset that reason and faith are harmonious. This perceived coherence is due to the common adherence to the Christian framework in which reason is seen as a good thing that must come from God who is the source of all good things. This is demonstrated in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Aquinas, Petrarch, and Galileo.

Clement of Alexandria claimed that reason was a “divine gift” to the Greeks, and held reason in very high esteem as a tool for aiding divine understanding. According to Clement, reason did for the Greeks what the Mosaic Law did for the Hebrews in demonstrating the value of living a righteous life and preparing them for the coming of Jesus. Clement claimed that the wisdom which Solomon spoke of is supplemented by philosophy so that wisdom will not be misled by false ideas. Clement thought so highly of reason that he derides those who rely on faith alone out of a false sense of piety, and he continued on to say that it is better to use all knowledge and understanding that a man could gain so he could understand more effectively the divine truths of God. Not only did Clement not see a contradiction between faith and reason, he thought faith ought to be supplemented by reason, which had been handed down by the Judeo-Christian God as a divine gift, so that someone could be a “partaker of the power of God.”

Such reverence for reason is also found in Summa Contra Gentiles Book One by Thomas Aquinas in which he establishes that there are two ways in which we can discover truth about God. The first is by reason through which we may discover “that God exists, that He is one, and the like.” The other means by which divine truth may be discovered is through divine revelation which reveals to mankind things that he would not have discovered on his own. This is not to say that such things contradict reason, they simply surpass our capacity to reason given the resources we have in the world around us. Aquinas goes to great length in describing how it is reasonable that man would need divine revelation to supplement his capacity to reason in regards to discovering divine truth. This is because the sensible world is limited in what it can reveal to us and there is a gradation of knowledge in that the divine knowledge of angels far surpasses that of humans while God’s own knowledge surpasses that of the angels to an even greater extent. It therefore makes sense to Aquinas that man could not possibly comprehend the full grandeur of the knowledge of God. Aquinas then goes on to defend these divine truths which transcend reason as being more than fables by appealing to the authority of prophecy and the phenomenon of the spread of Christianity in adverse circumstances. Even in defending the idea that there are truths which go beyond reason, Aquinas is using reason and evidence. Aquinas makes his harmonious view of divine knowledge and reason most explicit when he claims “…truth that the human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the Christian faith.” This is because “the knowledge implanted in us is by God… These principles therefore are also contained by the divine wisdom. Hence whatever is opposed to them is opposed to divine wisdom, and, therefore, cannot come from God.” Aquinas’ entire view on reason is predicated on his belief that reason came from the Judeo-Christian God as a good creator of all things. Even though divine revelation is sometimes needed to supplement reason, these two are never at odds in the mind of Aquinas since they are both from God and God cannot contradict Himself.

Further evidence of perceived coherence between faith and reason in the West can be found in Petrarch’s On His Own Ignorance. Throughout most of this piece, Petrarch downplayed knowledge. He went into detail about how all knowledge he had ever sought to gain was to make himself good through a “sober use of learning.” However, the pathos of his writing changed as soon as he came to the defense of his own ability to reason in that he shifts from a willful self-deprecation in regards to his knowledge to a tenacious defense of his ability to use reason which he considered “an inborn part of man.” To Petrarch, knowledge is merely an “adventitious ornament” that he could willingly do without; whereas, reason itself is a fundamental trait of mankind. In his words, Petrarch would “not be so ashamed of lacking erudition as of lacking reason.” To Petrarch, reason was an indispensable part of human nature, which, as his shift in writing indicates, ought to be guarded. Petrarch went on to declare that this innate ability to reason is crucially important when he said (while he described the arguments of Cicero for the existence of deities), “…whatever we behold with our eyes or perceive with our intellect is made by God for the well-being of man and governed by divine providence and counsel.” Yet again, the idea that reason was given to man as a gift through God was proclaimed. It is undeniably clear from his writing that Petrarch is a believer in Christianity, and this belief in the Judeo-Christian God acts as the foundation for his belief that God handed down reason to mankind as a fundamental part of humanity that could be used as a perfectly legitimate epistemological means of pursuing truth while remaining in harmony with faith.

The final example of faith being reconciled with reason in the West may be found in Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess where Galileo defended his theory of heliocentricity, which was being was assaulted by an army of geocentric Aristotelians who “…resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible.” Galileo himself believed that “…the holy Bible can never speak untruth-whenever its true meaning is understood.” The key here for Galileo is that Scripture must be properly understood because sometimes it is “abstruse” and metaphorical. Galileo believed that our natural understanding of the world ought to shape our interpretation of Scripture rather than vice versa. Galileo’s attitude towards the interaction of faith and reason is best summarized when he says, “…having arrived at any certainties in Physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible… for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths. I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning, could not be made credible by science, or by any other means through the very mouth of the holy spirit.” Galileo seems to make the same appeal that Aquinas made while taking it one step further in saying that Scripture was made to reveal to mankind that which reason alone could not reveal, and that our interpretation of Scripture should be molded by our understanding of the physical world since the natural world is a means of revelation from God that is equal in validity to Scripture. Galileo claimed that reason and divine revelation do not contradict each other, and he proceeded even further to claim that our reasonable understanding of the world ought to shape our interpretation of Scripture whenever the need arises. Galileo saw reason and the ability to interpret the way in which nature works as a gift from God that ought to be taken seriously. He also believed that because divine revelation through Scripture and natural revelation through science are both from God, they must be in accordance with each other.

In light of the writings of some of the West’s greatest scholars, it would appear that in propagating the idea that reason and faith are necessarily opposed to each other Richard Dawkins and his Four Horsemen are beating dead horses. Many great thinkers of the West found harmony between faith and reason whether it was in the form of philosophy or science. By no means did these scholars let “fairy tales” blur their view of good reason. To the contrary, it was faith in the God of Christianity which gave these men such a deep respect and appreciation for reason because they saw it as a gift from God Himself that would always be in accord with His divine revelation that is accepted through reasonable faith.

 

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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