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Christian faith and human reason Bringing our natures together

The relationship between faith and reason has been one of the steamiest romances in the course of western history. What has been one generation’s heart-throb romance has only resurfaced in the next as a chilly break-up. Never fully comfortable with one another, the eternal opposites never get over their exhausting obsession. The relationship has always been strained, but for those who take the time to watch, there is never a dull moment in this drama at the center of Western history. Let’s just say, “It’s complicated”.

A controversial but very fruitful relationship, with many child prodigies to display in their happy family, faith and reason comprise the full scope of our humanity. Being a complete human being means that you will need to seek both aspects of life.

The mind should be disciplined through the proofs of Euclid, but it also needs to cultivate a life of devotion and obedience to God in order to grow in the vision of faith. Christian faith does not provide a context that makes the life of reason unquestioned- but it does put limitations on it. Though these limitations make reason uneasy, they protectively circumscribe its existence in a fashion that keeps it from destroying itself.

Our culture often sees faith as the enemy of reason; yet, many of the great thinkers of our time have come from homes where the vision of God has been sought and faithful Christian life has been practiced. Though their fathers probably did not always look well upon their sons’ conclusions, it is remarkable how many of the German intellectual luminaries came from the homes of pietistic Lutheran ministers. Christianity is the crucible of intellectual tension that provides a context within which the invisible realm of the mind is not only studied but lived and wrestled with.

“Love,” returned Elpis simply. “It is love for you that made Him do it. Do you see now what Christopher meant when he said sacrifice was necessary for life? Christ poured out His blood on the ground so that you could partake of it, and become living once more. That is the beauty hidden in sacrifice—in the altar; the truth is the myth fully realized. Where man brought evil, Christ’s sacrifice brings glorious salvation. All was not lost when evil came into the world…” Alyssa Carr- GBT V Essay

Reason thinks that it cannot trust faith as faith makes claims that are beyond its capacity to evaluate. Faith distrusts reason because reason can never see unless it pulls apart- demanding an account that faith often cannot give. Yet in the mind of a great man such as Pascal, it becomes very evident that faith and reason grow best when planted in the shade of one another. Just as Rome ceased to be strong, when it ceased to be afflicted by war, the mind that can internalize the tension between faith and reason is actually strengthened, not debilitated.

The Glory of man is reason and the glory of reason is to know its limits. Blaise Pascal

Some try to reconcile faith and reason by relegating faith to that of a silent partner in the mutual contract of human concerns- given a place but politely asked to stay seated at the children's table while important matters are discussed. This view finds friends among those who see faith as a modern analogue to the drug-induced trance of the Delpic-oracle- sometimes mysteriously providing dark insights, but most of the time clearly not capable of coherent conversation, particularly if cocktails are involved. Yet, faith is propositional- it makes claims to truth that are within the scope of human understanding and examination. Faith asks questions and can itself be verbally engaged through question and examination.

Martin Luther 1483-1546

The friends of reason often attempt to claim that faith holds to its position rigidly and without examination, yet it does not take long in listening to their own positions to find that they also have particular positions that they will put forward with great fervor and little patience for examination or discussion. Each generation of rationalists seems to have their own collection of favorite positions. For example, in our own time, try questioning the fundamental validity of homosexuality as a cultural norm.

René Descartes 1596-1650

Not only can faith be held in a manner that is compatible with reason, but those who would pursue a great books education will find that faith is actually a friendly aid in their quest.

Geometry and Christianity have a very similar relationships to the flow of Intellectual history. Geometry has set the pattern for rigorous proof. Philosophers have attempted to mimic the certainty of geometric proof when constructing their arguments for foundational ideas. Because of this close relationship, in order to understand Western philosophy, becoming very familiar with Euclid’s Elements and the many proofs that it develops is very useful. Working through Euclid not only gives one an understanding of how beautifully logical arguments can be constructed, but it allows one to understand the many references to Euclid that come up in philosophy. If you did not believe in geometry and refused to enter into the practice of it proofs, you would be put at a distinct disadvantage when trying to understand many of the writers who did practice and believe in the efficaciousness of geometry. Similarly with Christianity, it is those who actually believe in it and practice its life, that have a great deal of affinity with the authors who have written many of the great books. The language of Christian theology is used so extensively throughout the great books, that a living familiarity with Christianity makes the great books much more accessible to the reader.

When one believes that most of the authors that one is reading have ideas that are so far from one’s own that they can only be discussed as historical curiosities, it is difficult to take their claims with a sufficient seriousness to enter into an earnest conversation regarding their attempt to describe life’s important questions. For example, if one is comfortable holding the modern assumption that so long as two adults are engaged in well-informed and consensual sexual behavior, that guilt is a completely inappropriate category to apply to their actions, it will be very difficult to understand Augustine‘s Confessions. A major driving theme in his story is his tortured attempt to grapple with his sexual guilt. If you do not believe that sexual guilt is a relevant human experience, Augustine’s problems can only appear to be an unnecessary exercise in needlessly giving oneself an emotional beating. A Christian who is aware of and feels the guilt arising from his own jumble of chaotic and disordered sexual desires finds in Augustine not only a fascinating historical character, but a fellow passenger in the journey of human experience. Most of the great books were written from within the Christian worldview and not only being familiar with it historically, but knowing the feel of living it out makes those wonderful readings not only interesting, but deeply applicable to one’s life.

Even in understanding the more abstract concepts of Plato, anyone who accepts Christianity will understand Plato’s own attempt to grasp the divine much more sympathetically then one who holds that God's nature is completely obscure to any rational investigation. Plato deeply appreciated the obscure in human thinking, but nonetheless God was a being who could be discussed and his consequences on our existence were a reasonable topic for human consideration. It is very helpful to read Kant and Kierkegaard’s ideas regarding the limitation of the mind in being able to comprehend the nature of God, yet the bulk of Western history is written by those who assume that the rational investigation of God’s nature is highly profitable even if it is limited by the extent of reason’s capacity to see beyond the visible world.

Reading the Great Books has not been a very common approach in Christian circles and some even think such broad reading is not compatible with true Christian education, however, I find it is precisely the Christian who stands in the best position to grasp and learn from the ideas put forward in the great books. On the contrary, the strict atheist must find most of the reading so distant from his own positions as to make it quaint or even meaningless, even to the point of being a narrowly academic exercise.

Pascal writes, “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched.” The opposing sentiments of greatness and wretchedness seem altogether too disparate to join together. Certainly, without Christ, they are too dissimilar. Without the cross, wretchedness is indeed wretched and greatness is some far off unattainable entity. However, two thousand years ago on a tree between two thieves, Christ made wretchedness great. With the victory of the cross, he calls all those who are weak, heavy laden and poor in spirit to come to Him with their wretchedness and live. Christina Lambert- Great Books V essay

The relationship between faith and reason is so profitable that those who faithfully pursue reason or reasonably pursue faith will find that their efforts richly rewarded with a complex and deeply fulfilling experience of the joy that is our gift in being human.

Credits:

Created with images by swisshippo - "Westminster abbey" • LALSSTOCK - "Hagia Sophia" • borisb17 - "Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy" • Georgios Kollidas - "Blaise Pascal" • chrisdorney - "St. John's College in Cambridge" • Jbyard - "Westminster Abbey in London, England."

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