Faith and Reason

Oct. 24 1998 3:30 AM

Faith and Reason

The pope says they should be "reconciled." How, exactly, is that done?

Last week, to mark his 20th anniversary as pope, John Paul II issued an encyclical, "Fides et Ratio," calling on the faithful to reconcile faith and reason. Rationalists reasonably ask: How does one do that? If faith tells you that God created humankind in the garden of Eden and reason tells you humankind evolved from lower animals over millions of years, how do you reconcile those messages? If faith tells you that the Communion wafer is the body of Christ and reason tells you this seems highly unlikely, where do you go from there?


Various subdivisions of various religions have various strategies for reconciling faith and reason. Here are a few, on a rough spectrum from faith wins to reason wins:

1 Fundamentalism/Literalism

Literalist approaches to the Bible/Torah/Koran contend that when reason contradicts the word of God, reason is misguided. This philosophy is summed up in the battle cry of many a literalist: Nothing is impossible with God. Scientific proofs that contradict biblical stories of the great flood or creation are wrong and have been derived through erroneous means. The debate over evolution is probably the best-known example of the literalists' combination of rock hard belief and relentless point by point challenge of the rationalist side.

Literalists often warn against too much reliance on knowledge as opposed to truth as revealed through Scripture. It is this obsession and lust for knowledge that caused the human condition (suffering, evil, painful childbirth, etc.) in the first place: Eve's craving for enlightenment is what led her to eat from the tree of knowledge, after which God expelled her and Adam from paradise.

2 Faith Complements Reason

This is the position the pope takes in his latest encyclical. Faith and reason are argued to be logical complements. God empowered humans with reason precisely so that humankind might come to a better understanding of God and God's creation. "Fides et Ratio" says there is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith. Each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action. Officially, the Catholic Church gives reason the same weight as faith. If you use your reason in the way it was intended, you will discover the wonder and mystery in God's creation and, in turn, you will come to a greater understanding and appreciation of God.

Those who favor this approach often tend to see philosophy and Scripture as sharing the key to the ultimate truth. The pursuit of knowledge is good, not bad, because it leads closer to the actual truth: God and God's plan. Without reason and knowledge, say Catholics and other believers in this way of reconciling reason with faith, the teachings of the Bible look like magical fables instead of moral teachings. Michael Novak, a theologian at the American Enterprise Institute, sums up the basic premise of this approach, saying that without lively attention to reason, Judaism and Christianity fall into sentimentality, superstition, and self-parody.

3 Apples and Oranges

Another school of thought contends that faith and reason occupy two different realms of knowing. They are so dissimilar that they cannot contradict one another. Reason encompasses the physical, while faith deals with the metaphysical. The seen and unseen are independent of each other: You don't read the Bible for answers to scientific questions, and you don't read a biology textbook to find out how to live.


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