Faith And Reason Before Descartes

Debates about faith and reason often proceed without analysis of what reason is. It has been a philosophical commonplace since Aristotle to distinguish between theoretical and practical reason: between the use of our intellectual powers to gain truth, and their use to guide our conduct. Someone noteworthy for success in the first has been said to show theoretical wisdom, and someone successful in the second has been said to show practical wisdom, or prudence. Theoretical reason is commonly divided into pure reason, which proceeds wholly a priori, and inductive or empirical reason, which proceeds with the guidance of sensory or other forms of experience. Theoretical and practical reason are thought of as species of one genus because each has to proceed according to principles that it is the business of the logician to examine; so that a person can be judged irrational if his or her beliefs are incoherent or confused, and equally if his or her conduct is inconsistent or self-defeating.

Debates about the rationality of faith are most commonly about its relationship to theoretical reason: about the extent to which the beliefs that the man or woman of faith adheres to can be established by pure or inductive reasoning, or cohere with truths learned through reasoning in either of its forms, or are internally consistent with one another. But they may also be about the extent to which the believer is pursuing a form of life that is prudent or self-fulfilling, or frustrating or immature; and such questions are questions about the practical, rather than the theoretical, rationality of faith. There is a third range of questions that seems to straddle this division: philosophers have often said that considerations of prudence or obligation arise not only for our conduct but also for our beliefs. It is said that we have certain duties that we must carry out if we are to attain to truth—to believe only on good evidence, for example. Let us call these doxastic duties. Some critics of faith have suggested that those who have it neglect some of these duties. Contemporary debates about the impact of the decline of foundationalism in philosophy have raised questions about what doxastic duties we have, and whether faith satisfies them. These questions have become prominent because foundationalism is based on assumptions about such duties that are now under attack.

Parallel questions can be raised about beliefs that are not the core of faith, such as those of secular common sense or natural science. Philosophical reasoning can be used to question the achievements of reason itself. This questioning is the essence of the Sceptical tradition, and the foundationalism that we owe to Descartes is in part an attempt to respond to it. It is important to note that those who see faith and reason as enemies may judge Scepticism to be an ally of faith, in spite of appearances to the contrary.

Whatever the effects of foundationalism on debates about the status of faith, Descartes and his successors did not begin such debates; so it is not likely, on the face of it, that self-conscious freedom from foundationalist assumptions can resolve more than some of them. The debates are as old as theological thought itself. They arose because Christianity spread in a culture that had already attained the highest level of philosophical sophistication, but had achieved it without seeing any need to integrate philosophical understanding and religious devotion (Gilson 1941; Mascall 1949: ch. 1). Philosophy seemed unnecessary and religiously hazardous to many Christians, yet its conceptual resources were indispensable for responding to pagan critics and for distinguishing orthodoxy from heresy. In these disputes it became clear that some pagan philosophical traditions, especially those deriving from

Plato, were rich sources of theological nourishment, whose availability looked providential. Hence the protracted controversies about the relation between reason and faith in the medieval period (Gilson 1938).

Two major positions in these debates have had great influence. The first is that of Augustine and Anselm, which holds that the understanding the metaphysician seeks is not a condition of faith, but is one of its rewards; indeed that faith is required for it. As Anselm says in his address to God in the Proslogion, he does not seek to understand so that he may believe, but he believes in order to understand. The Augustinian position is hard to square with the actual use of argument in faith's service (Hopkins 1972; Wolterstorff 1986).

The most systematic and influential resolution of the problem of faith and reason is that found in Aquinas. It is a system that forges an alliance between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian revelation as found in the Scriptures and interpreted by the Church, while recognizing the separate provenance and integrity of each (Wicksteed 1920; Aquinas 1955: I, 1-12, III, 1-63; Aquinas 1963: Ia, Qu. 1,2).

Aquinas believes that the ultimate good for human nature is the enjoyment of the vision of God. But such fulfilment is not possible for us in this life, since our minds must always begin from what is supplied to them by the senses. We can move beyond the limitations of the senses, however, in ways that other creatures cannot. This movement, which can point us towards the vision that constitutes our ultimate satisfaction, is possible in two ways. Our reason can abstract from the sensory and recognize the existence of a higher realm, while remaining incapable of penetrating the nature of the supernatural reality it can show us exists. Some divine truths, therefore, are accessible to us through philosophical reflection. The second way in which we can be pointed towards the vision of God is a way that is available both to those who can engage in philosophical reasoning and to those who cannot; this is the way of revelation. Revelation provides us with a body of truths about God, our nature, and our salvation. It is to be found in the Scriptures and the doctrinal pronouncements of the Church, especially the creeds. The faith the Christian proclaims in reciting the creeds is primarily a matter of accepting these truths. Such acceptance entails no more than a very dim and partial understanding of the realities which these doctrines tell us, since these realities transcend the capacities of our finite intellects. But in spite of this, it is not foolish (or irrational) to accept them. On the contrary, good reasons can be given for doing so. Some of them (such as the existence of God and the providential governance of the world) can be proved by reason, so that the spheres of reasoning and of revelation overlap. Those that reason cannot prove (such as the triune nature of God) complement those that can. And the revelation of those truths that are beyond reason's power to prove is accompanied by signs of its divine source: miracles, the fulfilment of prophecies, and the workings of the Spirit in the growth of the Church itself.

Such evidence attests the divine source of the revelation we are called on to accept. We can, therefore, also assume that when the truths of revelation seem to contradict reason (as, for example, the doctrine of Incarnation has been held to do), this appearance must be illusory and can be dispelled by careful argument and reflection.

Faith, then, is rational in three ways. First, some of the truths proclaimed in revelation can be proved independently, in what came to be known as natural theology. Second, those that cannot be so proved, or even understood, by reason, are attested by evidence that makes it fully reasonable to assent to them as coming from God. Third, the appearance of contradiction in revealed doctrine, or of its conflict with natural knowledge, can always be shown to be the result of misunderstanding or of sophistry. The gift of revelation carries us beyond, but does not contradict, the knowledge and satisfaction that the natural exercise of reason gives to us, just as the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity are gifts that supervene upon the natural virtues we can develop for ourselves. Grace does not replace nature, but perfects it.

If we ask, from a standpoint determined by later philosophical concerns, whether or not Aquinas thought he was providing philosophical foundations for faith, the answer has to be negative. The faith does not need the philosopher to legitimize it or establish its credentials. Nevertheless, he argues that it is not 'foolishness' to assent to the truths of revelation, and that it is 'fitting' that those truths about God that reason can discover should also be made available in the Scriptures for those who do not have the training or opportunity to learn them through philosophy; and the fact that he argues these things shows that he sees philosophical argument (and few thinkers in history have penned so much of it) has critical apologetic functions for him (Wicksteed 1920:176-96).

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