Monday, August 02, 2010

Reason and Faith

The New York Times has recently begun a forum called The Stone to feature the writings of contemporary philosophers. As one who is preparing to teach a senior-level course in philosophy, I've been keeping an eye on these columns in the hope that they'll furnish a few "read and comment" opportunities for my students. In general, these are well-written, smart, and interesting pieces that try to make complex philosophical thought intelligible to a larger, non-specialized, audience.

This week's contribution comes from Professor Gary Gutting who teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. It's an interesting piece, and I suggest that you read it in full. His piece, and the numerous comments it has given rise to, has encouraged me to reflect for a few moments on the relationship between philosophy and faith.

I, with Professor Gutting, reject immediately any recourse to the line "it's a matter of faith." This is a cowardly response, generally a cipher for "I'm too lazy to think critically and rigorously." I look at philosophy as a way of thinking, a method (from the Greek methodus or "pathway"). I rather enjoy dissecting arguments to see if and how they hang together. I  find it exhilarating to read about new ideas that challenge my thinking and force me to re-examine my own beliefs. New thoughts do not threaten my faith; rather, they challenge and, through struggle and refinement, embolden it.

Recently, I have been reading the work of Charles Taylor and Martin Heidegger. In his Sources of the Self Taylor writes, "I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors...A self exists only within what I call 'webs of interlocution." (36)  Heidegger has a similar insight with his notion of "thrownness," that each of us is made a subject to life, and Mitsein - we are always in relation to others. Thus it is not as though we are born and then, lo and behold, happen upon a world. Rather, we find ourselves "thrown" into a world - a world of relationships - that we have to negotiate.

This insight undermines the Romantic myth that holds "I" am a sovereign and autonomous agent, that "I" am the builder of the very set on which my life's drama plays out and that "I" invite those whom I wish to invite to be a part of this drama. What Taylor, Heidegger, and thinkers like Wittgenstein are apt to show us is what common sense should tell us: there is no "I" without a pre-existing "We." I am who I am because I have been loved, challenged, and cajoled into personhood by others. My story begins long before I am am born: my parents, grandparents, family members, nation, world all came before me. I am an inheritor of a narrative, a character in a much larger ongoing story.

This story, which we add to and shape each day, pre-exists us. Throughout our lives, our challenge is to make this story our own, to live as authentically as possible. Perhaps one way of stating an optimistic goal for humanity is that we strive to  live in harmony with others, to live well not only with our fellow humans but also with the environment. Living a "meaningful life" demands that we live with others, that we inhabit a shared space, and that we do so well

To be honest, I think it at least reasonable to see that this drive toward having a meaningful existence points us to the deepest reality of creation: that it is meaningful. And if it meaningful, then there is a Creator that has invested it with meaning. To put this negatively, I simply find it impossible to believe that the story of creation, the ongoing narrative of evolution, is a pointless and meaningless affair. The human drive to craft and shape a story, the deepest yearning of our beings to question "Why" of all that is around us, searches for meaning. This yearning for meaning, a desire to make sense of the whole, aches to find the "great story" into which we can insert our own life stories. This is not a proof a a Creator (and by Creator, I do not mean "Intelligent Designer." I mean, simply, the reason there is something rather than nothing), but it does seem at least passingly reasonable to believe that the whole of creation does have meaning, rather than being "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

This, I take, to be an aspect of faith. Faith is not the sum of all doctrines or dogmas but, rather, a sense of relationship that puts all doctrines and dogmas into a recognizably meaningful context. A ring, a bouquet, and a garter are all nice things in and of themselves. But put into the context of a wedding and a narrative of commitment, and they are invested with recognizable meaning. That wedding ring may stand as a sign of a spouse's ardor and affection, but it does not sum up or express fully their union.

Skeptics err, to my mind, when they think that "faith" is the end-result of an argument. This gets the whole notion of faith backwards. Faith is a relationship with the Wholly Other who gives meaning and purpose to the entirety of creation. Faith is sort of like a framework in which things make sense.  Philosophy can examine facets of faith, look at reasons for faith, but it cannot supplant the act of relationship that places one's own story into the story of Another. By way of example, I cannot imagine my mother explaining to a group of acquaintances, "The reasons I love my husband of 32 years are...." and enumerating them until she says, "therefore, I love him." The order of faith, like love, is the opposite. My mother's framework would begin with "I love him," and then she , hopefully, could say, "and here are many reasons..."

The wrong picture obtains when we conceive of "Reason" and "Faith" as inhabiting two competing spheres. For Catholics, they are complementary: reason purifies faith and faith gives the ultimate context in which reason may operate. Seeing all of creation as a gift of God - reason and faith are both gifts from the same God who makes things 'to be' - Thomas Aquinas claims that truth does not contradict truth. The truths of reason are not inimical to the truths of faith. If there is a God, if there is an ultimate author of creation who invests our lives with meaning, then faith and reason are both summoned to unpack this meaning and respond, as best as we are able, to the invitation to be a part of the ongoing play of creation.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting thoughts!

I agree that one should not use "it's a matter of faith" to avoid hard analysis. I would, however, respectfully suggest a gentler characterization; it's not necessarily a cowardly retreat, but may well be an acknowledgement of reason's fundamental limits -- and there are limits. You might find Kurt Gödel's work of interest. It suggests perhaps, by informal extension, that any consistent theory -- or rational treatise, if you will -- must necessarily derive from unprovable assertions (axioms).

It seems to me that acceptance of axioms is de facto a "matter of faith". Otherwise, the most fundamental Axiom would be reduced to a Supreme Hypothesis and "the heavens declare the glory of God..." would be more properly rendered "The heavens suggest an interesting possibility...", would it not? :) You certainly know better than I of Christ's admonition concerning children and the Kingdom of Heaven, not to mention Paul's thoughts on "enticing words of man's wisdom".

I'm not schooled enough to argue these things skillfully or forcefully, but it seems to me that the definition of 'good' axioms, i.e. what things must necessarily be 'matters of faith', has to be fundamental. No analysis can be more valid than its hypotheses, and I can't imagine that anyone would want to build a fine and intricate bridge that takes you nowhere.

I look forward to more of your writing. :)

Respectfully, with best wishes!

P.S. Love your whistle videos! :)

Nick Wentworth said...

Thank you for this post. I found it very informative and helpful. In fact I have just begun following your blog, and find many of your posts incredibly useful tools in understanding the Jesuit theology that I so admire.

But from a purely analytical point of view, if in using faith and reason to solve a common problem one finds a contradiction in the answers, does one method override the other? Does it even happen that these two methods can conflict? And if the answer to the preceding question is yes, is the Catholic obligated to go by faith and not reason?

These are questions that I've asked of others but haven't received satisfactory answers. I was hoping you would have a more satisfying answer. Thank you for your time!