Faith as a Mode of Knowing

Even to suggest that faith and reason might complement one another in executing human inquiry is to move beyond the thought categories of modernism, where speaking of faith as a mode of knowing would have displayed a severe breach of etiquette, if not constituted an oxymoron. Alasdair MacIntyre's trenchant argumentation designed to show how any human inquiry must be tradition-directed recalls John Henry Newman's Grammar of Assent, composed to counter a set of Cartesian presumptions regarding paradigmatic rational inquiry in the heyday of modernity, the latter half of the nineteenth century (Lash 1983). The relevance of his reflective study today aptly confirms his observation that ideas have their time. Yet if the mutual normativity of faith and reason exemplifies the thirteenth century, while cleanly separating (if not opposing) them characterizes modernity, the move to post-modernity—however that protean term be construed—is intent (in its constructive mode) on seeking proper contexts for the exercise of reason. Indeed, the mood has shifted so palpably that we need to remind ourselves just how self-sufficient rationalist reason claimed to be, as it would have found the current cliche—that we have lost our faith in reason—a clear oxymoron. Nor should we be surprised to find affinities between medieval and contemporary thought; only the inevitably Hegelian overtones of the expression "pre-modern" make it paradoxical to link pre- with post-modern. Overtones of the Hegel, that is, who taught us to think in terms of linear development, yet if, as I am suggesting, the relationship between the thought forms at issue here is more properly dialectical, another Hegel will remain our guide.

If we can succeed in bracketing, or better yet, excoriating the model of progressive development, the connection between medieval and some forms of postmodern discourse will emerge more clearly. We might think of it in the following dialectical manner. Modernity was fairly constituted by a quite specific opposition to medieval thought, as we have noted, so could be called "post-" or even "anti-medieval." I have noted how this mode of thinking proceeded by avoiding, if not aggressively removing, any reference to creation and the creator/creature relation. It would follow from that characterization that some forms of "post-modern," in the sense of "anti-modern," discourse would display affinities with medieval inquiry, since post-modern" could be translated as "anti-anti-medieval." These observations operate at a level of excessive generality, of course, and the overlap will always be imperfect, since it is never the same things that are denied, nor in the same way; yet displaying the dialectics of the matter in this way should allow us to expect the affinities which have in fact emerged. John Paul II's recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio [Faith and Reason], illustrates this dynamic, as does a friend's remark that the Pope's offering faith as the fruitful context within which reason can flourish would have left Voltaire speechless. Yet the fact remains that we have "lost our faith in reason," and that the mode of reflection characteristic of Aquinas and other medieval luminaries may well be poised to show us a way in which these two—faith and reason—are inextricably in need of one another. For that conviction suffuses their writings, while many realities conspire to bring us to it in the wake of the failure of modernism to sustain itself.

One further dimension, especially relevant to this book, will display affinities between our period and the medievals which historical scholarship mostly managed to avoid until recently; that is the interfaith dimension. It is significant that Aquinas turned to "Rabbi Moses" as a key interlocutor in developing his project of enlisting reason to elucidate faith, and that Avicenna's distinction of esse from essence, suitably transformed, offered Aquinas just the tool he needed to appropriate Hellenic philosophy to his purposes. In that sense, the classical Christian synthesis wrought largely at the hands of Aquinas can be seen to have already been an intercultural, interfaith achievement. The relationship is more inherent and dialectical than it is one of traceable "influence," though Aquinas did read Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed as soon as it was translated into Latin, and we can easily trace at least five central strategies which Aquinas adopted from him (Burrell, 1989). In the endeavor which Maimonides and Aquinas shared, al-Ghazali would have been a more relevant Islamic interlocutor than Ibn-Sina, but the only work of his which Aquinas knew was the Aims of the Philosophers, which is little more than a recasting of Avicenna's summary of "philosophy" composed in Persian, the Danesh Nameh.17 So Aquinas never encountered his Islamic counterpart struggling with faith/reason issues as Maimonides had, yet we can do so, and with great profit. In sum, the capacity to find analogies in the ways that thinkers from other faiths utilize reason to illuminate and critically appropriate their tradition can offer us a strategy for comparative understanding whose results are not unlike those claimed for "natural law"-type inquiries, with the decided advantage that we need not claim anything more for "natural law" than the fact that the key notions in such questions prove to be intertranslatable in the minimal sense of providing fruitful comparisons.

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