Faith and reason

the-thinker-692959_640The relationship of faith and reason has always been a complicated one. Some consider them to be enemies. From one side, faith can be seen as an irrational and therefore irresponsible leap beyond sense and science. From the other, reason may be viewed as an impediment to belief.

And today, in what is widely considered to be a postmodern age, even reason itself is considered to be akin to one more species of faith. Each group or culture operates on its own assumptions and logic, and there is no transcendent criterion by which we can authoritatively declare one set of beliefs more valid than another.

For those used to a simpler world, it’s enough to make your head spin. And I don’t intend to untie that knot here, as if it were even possible to do so. But I do want to reflect briefly on Jesus’ statement in John 7:17 (NRSV): “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.” In their own way, these words speak to the issue of the relationship between faith and reason.

Centuries ago, St. Augustine wrote, “Believe, so that you may understand” (in Latin, crede ut intelligas). Later, St. Anselm would adapt and personalize Augustine’s dictum: “I believe, so that I may understand” (credo ut intelligam).

As we’ve seen repeatedly in the gospel of John, Jesus often seems to speak in ways that are cryptic and difficult to understand — and not surprisingly, he is frequently misunderstood. Given that people are told that they must believe to have eternal life, this all may feel a bit unfair.

But why did Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman eventually become believers? Is it that they finally figured out what Jesus was trying to tell them, and on the basis of that understanding, came to believe? Or was it that they were truly seeking God, and on that basis saw Jesus as someone in whom they could place their trust?

On the basis of John 7:17, I vote for the latter. And on the basis of Augustine and Anselm, I’d suggest that understanding came later, and enriched their faith.

I am not suggesting that apologetics and rational arguments for the faith have no place. Some believers think of faith in way that is all “heart” and little “mind,” generating inconsistencies of belief and conduct that drive away those of a more logical temper. It is good to know why we believe, and to help others understand our reasons.

But that’s not to say that faith is founded on reason. When apologetics succeeds, it’s because it removes rational obstacles for those who are seeking God — even if they don’t know that God is whom they seek.

The idea that the authenticity and authority of Jesus’ teaching can’t be decided on intellectual criteria alone can seem insulting to our independence and intelligence. But to put things in that order of priority is to say to God, “I will decide. I will establish the criteria, and see if the teaching measures up.”

Jesus rejects that way of thinking.

Is it any wonder that some took exception to that?