Monday, June 25, 2012


I don't suppose the debate about faith versus reason ever entered the human mind before Christianity. No primitive culture that I know of thought in those terms. The Greeks would not have understood the concept of "faith"; the pre-Christian Romans, no more so. Jews (and later, Mohammedans) had no use for faith. The truth had been given to them, the law was the law, and all it took to be a worthy person was to obey the law.

Almost from the beginning of Christianity, it was an issue. The Greco-Roman love of logic and dialectic couldn't be erased so easily even after the officially sweeping victory of Christian faith. Reading about the early history of the Church, you get the impression that the hierarchy had to spend half its time dueling heresies, some of which amounted to the idea that the doctrine made no sense to mankind's reasoning faculty: for instance, the Arian doctrine, which couldn't see how the "son" of God had existed eternally with the "God the father."


Thomas Aquinas committed his great intellect to showing that faith did not contradict reason, but his answer satisfied thinkers for a historically short period -- the Protestant revolution ("pro" faith) and  the Age of Enlightenment ("contra" faith) tested it again.

But the question had "bubbled under" even during the Middle Ages. Take Peter Abelard of the 12th century. He began his career as an ecclesiastical rock star, magnetizing students with his lectures. Abelard is remembered today mainly for his affair with his intellectual and sensual admirer Heloise. But despite their personal tragedy, Abelard continued his teaching which was -- by the standards of the time -- amazingly rationalistic. Although he never specifically denied Church doctrine, his attitude was not unlike that of one of Plato's students trying to justify it in logic.


Of course Abelard flirted with charges of heresy, arousing in particular the ire of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard, like other churchmen, feared that Abelard's call to reason would undermine the foundations of the faith. Abelard was eventually condemned for heresy by a Church council.

It's unlikely that anybody, save a few Catholic theologians of the old school, would defend faith as opposed to reason in today's world. I wouldn't; I don't believe in the idea of heresy; no institution should have the power to dictate belief. For all that, Abelard wasn't entirely right, and Bernard and his co-believers weren't entirely wrong.


Abelard wanted to square the circle, by taking the mystery of God and turning it into a series of propositions. Nine hundred years ago, he believed what is now almost unquestioned among the bien-pensants, that reason is the only valid form of knowledge. God can be understood, if at all -- if He exists -- by thinking about Him. St. Bernard was probably a narrow-minded cuss, but his objections were based on a more profound insight than ever seems to have visited Abelard: that there is a higher knowledge than the rational mind can comprehend. 

Reason has an important place. Despite all mankind's follies, it has made life materially better for almost everyone. But it has brought us not a bit closer to transcendent reality. Never has, never will.

That doesn't mean transcendent reality is a fantasy, only that reason is the wrong instrument for finding it. Spiritual discipline, of whatever sort is appropriate to the individual, is the right instrument in my view. But the path of spirit takes so long for most of us, so long, so long. Faith stops by. One gets the point of it.



Sheila said...

Excellent post. If I recall, Rick, you are not specifically a believing Christian, correct? Either way, a suitable corollary or response (or both) to John Derbyshire's recent book review/thoughts on Heaven and faith. I wrote him a rather long-winded email attempting to explain what you so succinctly wrote: "There is a higher knowledge than the rational mind can comprehend."

Rick Darby said...


I am not specifically a Christian (my wife is; she went to seminary). I'm trying to "catch up" with Christian history and belief. As with any other religion, my practice is to absorb what seems worthwhile and leave the rest.

Anonymous said...

There's a pr called Irene...or Rene.
She 's that NRENQ.
And apparently she's into " extreme mining" .

YIH said...

*shakes head*
Rick, maybe the Aliens are ticked off that you don't often write about UFO's and somehow are using your comments to try communicating.
''Anonymous''; Try another Earth language, maybe French. English just doesn't seem to be working out for you.

Rick Darby said...

Let us all ignore Anonymous. I am going to delete his babbling from now on without comment. Eventually he will get tired of it and move on.

Anonymous, I have already told you that you are schizophrenic and that you can get help by going to a hospital and asking to be admitted. Do yourself a favor.

Anonymous said...


On the back of your essay, is theology, i.e., a consistent and rational debate about the existence and experience of God, a purely Christian discipline? Is that true?

If Jewish and Muslims, have the law, then I see no reason why they should have a theology. For Judaism and Islam, it is a matter for the rabbis and imams on the interpretation of the laws.

What about Hinduism and Buddhism? Both have a philosophy, but that is not strictly theology.