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How Do Faith and Reason Relate?

Many years ago while working at a small bookstore in Portland Oregon, I was thumbing through a trade journal that was lying around the stock room and I came across an interview with Billy Graham. The interview was fairly standard fare as those things go except for the answer to one question which, I recall, struck me when I read it and still strikes me 15 years later. The journal asked Graham how he developed his core Christian beliefs. His answer was both simple and, in many ways, brutally honest. He replied, In the moonlight, I went into the woods. I opened the Bible and laid it on a tree stump. Then I knelt down and said, ‘Oh, God, I don’t understand all that is in this book. Many things seem to be contradictory. I cannot intellectually accept it, but I am going to accept it by faith as your Word, your inspired, divine Word.’ And I did accept it by faith, and I never had a doubt since then. While this quote probably does not accurately reflect many important nuances of how Billy Graham came to faith, it does, I think, embody the caricatured tension that exists between faith and reason. More importantly, it resonates with many religious people and perhaps accurately describes how they came to have faith in God. In these short sentences, Graham describes a kind of faith that has real epistemological power and provides a window into the existential grounding on which many religious people establish or sustain religious belief—a subject I introduced in the previous post in this series. In future essays, I briefly will explore existentialist philosophy with the goal of better understanding the nature of this grounding and to further unlock the apparent tension that exists in modern discussions of faith and science. Before exploring existentialism, I find it necessary first to attempt to define what is meant by the term “faith” and how it relates definitionally to reason or rationality. As we’ll see in the discussion on existentialism, faith as a practical idea is present in all worldviews and it would be incorrect to describe it merely as a religious concept. It does, however, take on special meaning in a religious context and religious people tend to be much more open to the role and importance it plays in their worldview.   What is faith? Faith is not a purely epistemic concept. When trying to define faith solely within the bounds of epistemology, the definition either ends up being inadequate or else it misses its target altogether. While some attempt a purely epistemic description, typically faith involves an affective or aspirational element. Richard Swinburne makes this point when he writes, “Some . . . writers . . . use ‘faith’ interchangeably with ‘belief’ . . . Christian faith is used to mean a belief that certain central Christian doctrines are true. For others, Christian faith is the belief that these doctrines are true accompanied by some affective component (such as a love of God or hatred of one’s sins).” 1 Many view religious faith as belief along with trusting the object of belief (God) and on this point, religious faith may differ from what we might call faith in general. Philosopher Paul Helm describes faith this way. Essentially, a person exercises faith by having a trust relationship with a person. But, says Helm, faith also involves a modicum of understanding (where understanding is a form of propositional knowledge) about the person who is trusted. After all, one has to know something about the person in whom she is trusting. A common theme in Augustine and Aquinas is the idea that faith is epistemically prior (insofar as belief in God is concerned) and understanding is a secondary, though important, augment to that faith. Faith is the means by which one exercises trust in the object of the understanding.2 Philosophical theologian and erstwhile president of the College of New Jersey (the school we now know as Princeton University) Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in his famous discourse on the religious affections treats faith similarly. The affections, he says, are one of the two main functions of the soul. The other is reason. The affections of the soul are its inclination toward an object. In fact, the affections are, in one sense, not to be distinguished from the will. They drive a person toward an object of delight. It is in this capacity that the characteristic evidence of true faith lays. He finds a place for evidence in his development of the ground of belief in the truth of the gospel. He argues that testimony cannot replace evidence when it comes to truth. He is quick to point out however that reasons and arguments alone are sufficient. In order to explain this, Edwards develops a concept of the spiritual sense. Reasons and arguments are useful only when the Spirit has worked to illuminate the understanding so the individual has eyes to see and ears to hear. He says the Spirit “unveils” the mind so it can grasp the truth. Also, he has a role for direct apprehension and intuition when it comes to religious belief. However this apprehension is not apart from any and all argument or deduction just long chains of arguments. In fact he says the deductive chain is one link long: by way of the divine glory does the mind ascend to the truth of God. Thus faith, for Edwards, is a combination of a spiritual awakening that allows one to understand the rational grounds for the truth of the gospel.3 With faith in general, the object takes on a variety of different forms. One of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, Roderick Chisholm, while being the embodiment of the analytic philosopher, still understood that even those committed to a largely rationalist approach to knowledge start with a leap of faith. Chisholm observes that certain things are presupposed when philosophers attempt to answer questions about what we are justified in believing and what were are justified in presupposing when we attempt to answer that question.  “Certain things are presupposed by the fact that one is able to ask the questions.” Be assuming that the enterprise of epistemology is possible—an assumption without which knowledge gathering could not proceed according to Chisholm—”epistemologists presuppose that they can succeed.” This means that epistemologists “have a kind of faith in themselves.” I think Chisholm’s point is that these assumptions and presuppositions must be made but they themselves cannot be proven by some prior or more basic method. It is faith that one is rational and that the rational method can get one at truth. 4 We’ll examine the other extreme when we survey existentialism. Existentialist thought puts a much greater emphasis on the faith component and minimizes (and in some cases eliminates) any role for reason in knowledge gathering. A middle way Between these extremes, some are attempting to find a rapprochement—a middle way. F. Leron Shults, while writing in a religious context, defines faith more broadly as “trust in the fecundity of a web of beliefs, which itself has been mediated by our experience.” This definition could apply to faith in general or religious faith in particular though the object of trust for Shults appears to remain this-worldly. He rejects the strong dichotomy between faith and reason so present in the modern discussion and argues that the scientific rejection of the “fiduciary” component of knowledge is just as misguided as the rejection of strict rationalism by religionists. Postmodern (what Shults calls “late modern”) thought provides the framework for an inter-disciplinary conversation while allowing each position to retain a kind of particularity. His model suggests that each of us can only start from our particular viewpoint which we, perhaps by necessity, must take to be objectively true. However we have learned that we must also hold that viewpoint with the knowledge that we are “socially located.” By that he means that we must recognize that not everyone holds that view and this forces us to engage in dialogue based on the “embodied desire” to learn about views that differ from our own. Starting with Kant (who, in my opinion, is the father of postmodernism), the notion of relation became a more fundamental category than substance and accident. From Kant we get Hegel then the existentialists and the pragmatists. All these thinkers emphasized relation (Hegel with his “synthesis,” Kierkegaard with his “relation of itself to itself” and Pierce with his three classes of relations) over opposites. Shults’s point is that neither side is primary but the the product of the two together is: the relation they create when they stand in juxtaposition. The same is true of faith and reason. Shults writes, “Instead of asking whether we should begin with rational proofs and ‘add’ faith when we hit a mystery, or whether we should begin with our fideistic commitments and then ‘add’ reasonable arguments only when pressed, we might begin with the relationality within which ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are mutually constituted….Rationality involves committing oneself to a belief, and faith involves making judgments about what is trustworthy” 5  Each of these definitions has its merits and they generally fall along similar lines. For present purposes, I think the following definition will suffice: faith is belief which has the following two properties: (1) the justification which accrues to the propositional content of the object faith necessarily will be insufficient such that it cannot be known to be true and (2) the doxastic attitude of the one having faith includes an affective component usually involving trust in the object of faith. It’s not necessary up front to specify the justificatory strength for items of faith nor is it important to specify any particular basing relations between the object of faith and other beliefs. While important, these items should surface in a broader analysis of particular faith commitments—something I’ll attempt to do in future posts. When Billy Graham, by faith, accepted the Bible as God’s inspired, divine word, he apparently came to believe that the Bible is inspired by trusting God as the author. He, in short, made a leap of faith. Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service Notes 1. Swinburne, R. (2009). Authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church. In T. P. Flint, & M. C. Rea (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp. 25, 26. Swinburne makes the rather striking acknowledgment that “the Christian tradition has had no clear view of the nature of faith.” He also notes that Christian faith could also include the idea of “acting on the assumption that (or trusting that) Christian doctrines are true, and perhaps also believing that they are true or perhaps without that belief.” Needless to say that defining faith could either involve an epistemic component or not. If the definition of faith is unclear among theologians and philosophers, it gets even murkier outside of academic circles. 2. Helm, P. (1997). Faith and Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 3. Edwards, J. (1997). The Religious Affections. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust. 4. Chisholm, R. M. (1989). Theory of Knowledge (3 ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 5. Shults, F. L. (2006). Trinitarian Faith Seeking Tranformative Understanding. In P. Clayton, & Z. Simpson (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press., p. 493 Series index << Previous in series Next in series >>    

Unlocking the Tension Between Faith and Reason

Faith positions that attempt to conserve what could be viewed as a classical position—that the power of faith comes not from its ability to explain the world but from its ability to transform it—is finding itself drastically removed from—and therefore increasingly in conflict with—a Western culture that is seeking to get by in this world by better understanding how it works. [More]

Dowling College Hosting Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

Oakdale, Long Island, New York, April 8th, 2011 In order to increase student awareness of and interest in philosophy, and to encourage contributions to the scholarly community, Dowling College Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies invites students to submit papers relating to any philosophical topic or period. Authors of accepted papers will be given the opportunity to present their work at Dowling College’s first undergraduate philosophy conference. Deadline for Submissions: January 15th, 2011 Submission Guidelines: Although papers must relate to a philosophical topic or period, that does not mean that other areas, such as psychology, sociology, neurology, biology, etc., are excluded. As long as the paper engages with its topic in a philosophical manner you are more than welcome to submit the paper. Presenters should plan on having 15 minutes to present their work (approx. 8-10 pages long). Time limits will be strictly enforced. Attach a copy of your submission in .doc or .docx format to an email, and send it to Adam Kohler at and Christian Perring at Within the email, please include your name, email address, and college/university that you are affiliated with. Please do not include your name on your paper, so that it may be reviewed “blind” by a committee of conference organizers. Authors whose papers are accepted will be notified by Feb 15, 2011. When you submit your paper, please indicate whether you would be interested acting as a discussant for another speaker's paper. Please remember that you do not have to be a philosophy major to submit a paper! All currently enrolled undergraduates are welcome to submit their work. The Rudolph Campus of Dowling College is located in Oakdale, NY. This is 50 miles from NYC, and 25 minutes walk from the Oakdale LIRR train station. For more information contact Adam Kohler at

Creation out of Nothing

This article in The Wall Street Journal is a promotional article summarizing a central argument in Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow new book, The Grand Design . In the article, Hawking and Mlodinow explain that the universe appears to be fine tuned to support life but no Designer is needed to do the fine tuning or the creating. Laws of physics predict universes like ours. Father Spitzer demurs. In this article, Spitzer explains that Hawking and Mlodinow employ a faulty metaphysic to explain their physics. Spitzer has a new book as well called New New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy. Thanks to Ben Olsen and Stan Dokupil for the links. See also: Hawking declares philosophy dead? Hawking’s M Theory

Where’s God When You Need Him?

A problem in theology and philosophy known as the hiddenness of God has challenged thinkers for centuries. The rational arguments have gone back and forth and even many of the New Atheists employ it in their books. Rick Pimentel provides a brief survey of some of these arguments—and some responses—in his latest article for the Table Talk series. He observes that many of the responses given by theologians don’t seem to provide an adequate response and then offers a possible way out. What do you think? See the full article here.

What Hath Jerusalem to do with Athens: On Faith and Reason

Philosopher Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame in an article for the New York Times’ blog The Stone explores the relationship between religious faith and philosophical inquiry. His topic resonated with me as I had an impassioned discussion with my father over this very question recently. The path of discourse seems to be a well-worn one. Just as Gutting explained how he challenges his mostly Catholic undergraduates to think about why they hold religious belief, I found the discussion with my father exploring a variety of similar topics including religious diversity, the problem of evil, philosophical arguments for and against God’s existence and inevitably personal faith. Problems with personal faith Personal faith. The term itself admits of an impenetrable epistemic keep. As Gutting observes, playing the “faith card” tends to be a discussion-stopper. Instead of having to wade through the morass of complex issues and incomprehensible philosophical jargon, faith leaps over the complexity and lands the claimant on apparently firm ground from which he waves confidently at the poor sap stuck in the confusion he just avoided. I understand this move very well as I employed it for years. But grounding religious belief on faith alone ends up creating a series of difficulties itself. While employing faith as an epistemic trampoline one may leap over the philosophical mire, she finds on the other side not solid ground but a sinkhole. The argument goes something like this. Either reason is the ground for religious belief or faith is. Reason cannot be the ground for religious belief. Therefore, faith must be. The reasons given for accepting the second premise tend to have to do either with a postmodernization of truth or are based on a polemic involving the corruption of the human mind and the inability of human reason to get at truths about things eternal. Gutting explains how he quickly is able to show his students that no philosophical, scientific, or historical arguments have been given that conclusively settle questions about specific religious truth claims. The essence of this claim is about an authoritarian juxtaposition: faith is on one side and reason is on the other. To affirm reason as the final arbiter of truth, one places the person and his or her ability to use reason as the epistemic authority. To affirm faith is to place God as the final authority. (Don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work exactly but that’s how it’s been explained to me.) Since human beings are fallen and unable to see God through the light of reason, faith must be the final bulwark against skepticism or atheism. But immediate problems arise. There is an initial challenge that is both simple on the surface and becomes more complex the more it is explored. If one is going to exercise faith in a God or religion, in which God or religion does one exercise faith? It’s a rather obvious fact that people generally have faith in the religion that is the closest to them. If you grew up in the West, you will have a much greater tendency to have faith in the Judeo-Christian God. The object of faith tends to become what is epistemically a live option for us. Yet most monotheisms teach that through faith we come to believe in the true God. But if one exercises faith in the only God or religion one has available at the time of commitment then it’s difficult to see how faith is truth-conducive. Yes, but . . . I’ve encountered two classes of responses to this problem. The first, and most prominent, is to cite evidence for God’s existence or the truth of Christianity. “I believe in this God because there is good evidence that proves this God exists.” To general arguments against God’s existence, believers may respond with logical problems associated with disbelief. Gutting captures the idea in this typical response by his students, “’Well, if there’s no God,’ they say, ‘how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?’” But this response lands one right back in the morass she was trying to avoid. Reason now becomes the final arbiter: I have faith in the God for which there is the most evidence: reason chooses the “right” God then one exercises faith in that God. Once this move is made, the honest person will have to contend with the messy rational arguments for and against God’s existence or for and against one’s religion. “This seems to bring us back to where we started.” as Gutting notes. The other class of responses avoids this difficulty by rejecting the dilemma. What I’ll refer to as the existential response rejects the idea that truth plays any role in the decision to exercise faith. Faith indeed is blind and genuine faith must be blind. I posed the religious diversity problem above to an existentialist friend of mine. I asked him how, if faith is all that is required when grounding religious belief, one should decide which God to believe in. He, an admitted Christian, answered, “It doesn’t matter.” He explained that the very question I posed is misguided. Faith is not about deciding to believe in a particular God, it’s about believing in God. When religion—any religion—is a live option for a person, he or she must make the choice whether to exercise faith and that alone is what matters. An Existentialist Response This response may sound puzzling at first particularly when you consider that it may come from someone who confesses allegiance to a particular religious faith. It is quite sophisticated however and comes from the thought of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He attempted to change the angle from which the problem is viewed so that the puzzle dissolves. Kierkegaard argued that reason could not be used to decide the truth of matters of religion. He did not deny reason’s ability to get to truth because of some inability of the mind. Rather, he said that questions of religion and theology are so complex and difficult when viewed through the lens of reason that it would take a lifetime to sort through all the evidence and to decipher all the arguments. Even if one had a lifetime, one may not get to a conclusion that decides the matter. Gutting makes a similar point in his article. Regarding the role of philosophical arguments in deciding matters about God’s existence, he writes, “There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals.  Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus. In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.” There’s a problem here says Kierkegaard. Agnosticism for relatively “trivial matters” like whether there is alien life or black holes is perfectly acceptable. If one goes to his grave undecided about the truth of life on other planets, there is no great consequence. But matters of religion are not trivial. They are, in the words of Paul Tillich, matters of “ultimate concern.” Agnosticism about matters such as these could prove eternally fatal. Since reason is unable to help us sort the matter out, one must take a leap of faith. One must decide to believe in God and commit one’s whole life to Him to avoid the abyss of indecision. But doesn’t this land us right back to the problem I raised earlier? Which God do I choose? Again here, Kierkegaard’s position is that we’re asking the wrong question. Faith is less like a choice between wrong and right and more like a commitment in which one is faithful or disloyal. In fact, exercising faith in God is similar to falling in love. In agape, reason is a non-starter. One does not tend to rationalize love (or if one does, it’s fails to be love). One does not consider all the arguments and wade through tons of evidence before deciding with whom they will fall in love. Most of the time, people know very little about the person. They, in a very real respect, take a leap of faith. Likewise, it’s odd to speak about the “right” person where “right” means I should love this one person and it would be wrong to love any other person. While we romanticize about our “soul mate” and talk as if we’re looking for the one person fate or God has chosen for me, in reality, most people have a range of options and there isn’t one single person for whom we must look. Similarly, we don’t have the option of love anyone. We typically fall in love with a person who is in close proximity; with those who are live options for us. Faith is very much the same primarily because faith, according to existentialism, is about a relationship not about adhering to a formal religious system (which Kierkegaard abhorred). The God one relates to is the God that is nearest, the one that is a live option. The person must choose to love or to reject that God. This, according to the existentialists is the essence of faith. He lives within my heart While this approach may provide a way out of the quagmire of reason, notice that it also completely privatizes faith. Faith no longer an object of public consumption or, more importantly, influence. People of like faith can come together and commune but that community has no epistemic ground to challenge another’s belief or even disbelief. In fact, this is locus of the postmodernization of religion. Postmodern epistemology focuses on the idea of truth as a product of community agreement. Within the community there is truth. But there is no such thing as Truth that transcends a particular community and applies to all communities. Gutting closes his article discussing the Reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga. While Plantinga is not a postmodernist or an existentialist, Gutting observes that while Plantinga’s epistemology may ground a rational belief in God, it does not help specify which God or which religion is true. “Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.” Or, we could add, having faith at all. At this point, it seems that reason must play a role if one is to make strong claims that their faith community is the “right” one or the “true” one and the expect others to agree with them. Indeed, this has been a fundamental concern of modern atheists. Some religious communities have eschewed their privatized status and gone public. Many also eschew reason and are using force--either in the form of physical force or legal force—to get others to accept their claims. When reason isn’t an option, force is the only option. And this takes us back to the question Gutting raises in his article: what does philosophy and faith have to do with one another? Gutting’s answer seems right, “philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on [questions about why one believes], and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief.” Further Reading The Essential Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Howard and Edna Hong Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity by Robert McKim  

Recent Book Calls for Reclassifying Works of Heidegger

A new book with the unambiguous title, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 apparently breaks new ground in identifying Heidegger much more strongly with Nazism. In the book the author, “appeals to his readers to recognize ‘the vital necessity of seeing philosophy free itself from the work of Heidegger.’” The author, French philosopher Emmanuel Faye apparently draws his conclusion based on evidence found in scores of material not available to the general public or even many academics.  According to this review in The Christian Century, Faye is unambiguous about his goal to debunk Heidegger and about the moral, social, and religious implications of Heidegger’s work.  “[Faye] throws down the challenge that Heidegger's works ought to be removed from the philosophy sections of university libraries and housed, if they are housed at all, in the section on Nazism. This point, more than any other, is likely to outrage critics and discourage people from reading Faye's book.”

How Much Would It Cost To Study Character?

Well $3.67 million would be a good start. Three professors—two psychologists and one philosopher—at Wake Forest University were awarded that sum by the Templeton Foundation to explore the nature of character. The project will be directed by philosopher Christian Miller. The multi-faceted approach to understanding character will include competitions for scholars around the country seeking funding for research on character, research projects by Wake Forest psychology and philosophy professors, two research conferences, a summer seminar, an essay competition with nine prizes of $3,000 each, and other elements. All three scholars either have published or are in the process of getting published in areas related to moral theory and will be expanding their work to look at what character is, what types of character people develop and what ought we strive to achieve. Read more here.

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