Thursday, 17 July 2014

On Faith and Reason

I have of late been thinking about the fact that Bernard Lonergan was a Catholic theologian. To my way of thinking it is precisely the fact that he had an interest in the broader Christian tradition that makes his thought so very apposite to the study of the New Testament. For many that same interest that obviates his relevance for the work of biblical studies. There are those who would suggest that as a religious man Lonergan was given by definition driven by faith rather than reason. What I find quite interesting about such an assertion is that it is typically just that: an assertion, all too infrequently defended by reasoned argument. Rather, it turns upon an often unexamined supposition about the incompatibility of faith and reason.

It would of course be the case that faith excludes reason if, but only if, they are mutually exclusive. Yet reason would require that we demonstrate the veracity of such mutual exclusion. What, exactly, is it about faith that excludes reason? Is it the content of a religion’s beliefs? Insofar as religion is a human phenomenon then it is reasonable to expect that any given religion contains some beliefs that are reasonable and others that are unreasonable. Moreover, even if I showed that the beliefs of a particular religion were without exception unreasonable I would have shown that this is the case only with that religion; I would still have said nothing about “faith” an object in its own right. Moreover, even if I showed that every belief in every religion known to have existed or currently exist is unreasonable I would not have established the possibility of a future religion in which that is not the case. Content is thus a dead-end.

If it is not the content of faith that makes it incompatible with reason than perhaps it is the means by which faith generates knowledge. The problem is again diversity: there is no distinctive epistemology common to all religions and only to religions. Heck, even within particular religions there is significant epistemic diversity. In one sense for instance the entire Catholic-Protestant divide turns on a properly epistemological question, namely what are the appropriate processes by which one generates distinctly Christian knowing. Yet the differences between their epistemologies pale compared with those of, for instance, Buddhism.

If faith has neither a distinctive nor epistemology then what makes faith distinctly faith? Let me define faith by reference to orientation, which is to say that faith is the conviction that we live in an intelligible world. This conviction might take the materialist forms frequently favoured by atheist thought, the realist forms frequently favoured by Christian thought, or the generally idealist forms frequently favoured by Buddhist thought. Despite the diversity of explanations all proceed on the supposition that the world is an intelligible place. This supposition is faith, and thus understood faith becomes not a barrier to but rather a necessary precondition for genuine reason. Only if one believes that the world is intelligible can one fully commit oneself to the work of intelligently understanding the world. Just as St. James and St. Paul identify faith as the basis for genuinely just works so too can we consider faith to be the basis for genuine reason. Put otherwise, all reason—and not just theology—is faith seeking understanding, such that a doctrine such as the existence of God or the existence of a multiverse are not doctrines are reason’s attempts to give an account of a faith held antecedent to the work of reason itself.

One need not of course subscribe to the above, all-too-hastily sketched, account of the relationship between faith and reason. That’s not even the major point of this post. The major point is that one cannot suppose them to be mutually exclusive without demonstrating this to be the case, at least not if one wants to operating in a reasonable fashion. Unreason is no less unreasonable simply because one declares it to be reasonable. Absent demonstration of the invariant irrationality of faith then any dismissal of any thinker, such as Lonergan, simply because she or he is a person of faith is in fact quite unreasonable. That of course is not surprising, as such a dismissal would in fact be predicated upon an ad hominen argument.

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