Reason/Faith

James E. Nelson

United Presbyterian Church
 607 Genesee  Blue Rapids, KS 66411

From: PSCF 42 (December 1990): 250-252.                                  Bube responds

I am writing in response to Richard Bube's "Penetrating the Word Maze" on "Reason/Faith."1 I would like to propose an alternative.

Bube's primary concern was the dichotomy, or "false distinction" which has been advanced between reason and faith. While he argued that science has a faith component and religion a rational component, he allowed the dichotomy between faith and reason to stand, going so far as to describe reason and faith as two poles on a particular axis of human experience. Rather than demonstrating that the wall separating reason and faith is an illusion, Bube attempted to move science and reason up the wall and toward the center of the axis. The danger of placing both reason and faith on the wall is that, like Humpty Dumpty, they could fall and philosophers of science and religion alike would be unable to put the pieces together again.

Rather than trying to make reason and faith into two points on a continuum, we need to recognize that the two describe two different things. Comparing them is akin to comparing apples and oranges: they're both fruit, but apples are certainly not the opposite of oranges.

Faith refers to a basic trust one has in the object being studied, whether creation (in science) or the Creator via the Church (in theology)2 Once that basic trust is established, then inquiry can proceed; this is where reason enters in. Utter faithlessness in the created order, or in our own sensory faculties, leads ultimately to solipsism, or to agnosticism (which is a religious version of solipsism).

Trying to create a continuum with faith at one end and reason at the otherconfuses the issue. Both are necessary for orderly inquiry (just as apples and oranges are both fruit), but each deals with a different aspect of human inquiry; they are not polar opposites but complementary parts of a whole. Furthermore, once faith and reason are brought into proper relationship, other aspects of the inquiry process begin to make better sense. 

Doubt 

Because of our Western philosophic tradition, the subject of doubt must be an integral part of our understanding of faith and reason. My dictionary3 indicates that belief and doubt are opposites. Doubt is "a feeling of uncertainty," or "a feeling of disbelief," or "an uncertain state of affairs."

Along this same line of thought, in the tradition of the Western rationalists, empiricists and skeptics, doubt is an integral part of reason. Universal doubt, in the Cartesian tradition, was supposed to allow us to move beyond all ideas based merely on trust. In other words, doubt would liberate us from mere belief and allow us to enter the objective world of reason.

But we still have all our fruit mixed into a single basket. How does doubt relate to faith? How does faith relate to science? How does Christian faith relate to theology? In the fruit basket of the western philosophical tradition, these questions are very difficult to sort out.

It would be best to begin with the nature of doubt. Michael Polanyi argues that, far from being opposite, there is an "equivalence of belief and doubt."

Suppose somebody says "I believe p" where p stands for "planets move along elliptic orbits," or else for "all men are mortal." And I reply "I doubt p." This may be taken to mean that I contradict; which could be expressed by "I believe not-p." Alternatively, I may be merely objecting to the assertion of p as true, by denying that there are sufficient grounds to choose between p or not-p. This may be expressed by saying "I believe p is not proven."4

Polanyi illustrates two types of doubt in the above statement. The form of doubt which involves outright denial is clearly akin to belief: "I believe p" is an equivalent statement to "I believe not-p". The second form of doubt in the above statement is different in that it does not assert the truth or falsity of p. Yet it still assumes belief because it involves the suspension of such belief: "I believe p is not proven."

Faith is an unavoidable phenomenon; doubt involves an act of faith. What this means is that everything we call "factual," "truthful" or "proven" has its foundation in an unproven belief. We call these presuppositions. Scientists cannot prove "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that the speed of light is absolute, nor can theologians prove "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that God is absolute, although both presuppositions are assumed. All "facts" are built upon presuppositions; all life has a faith component. 

Religion or Theology? 

But does religion not require more faith than science? This is another type of fruit in our fruit basket. One must make a distinction between religion and theology. Bube's discussion on this was not particularly helpful either. 

The ideal of science is to be as objective and independent of one's subject as possible; the ideal of Christian faith is to commit oneself personally and wholly to Jesus Christ, trusting God's promise in Him and being obedient to His words.5

Notice that Bube is comparing science and Christian faith rather than science and theology. Christian faith is different from any science, including theology, in that it operates primarily at the level of our presuppositions and is therefore neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Polanyi describes it this way:

Religion, considered as an act of worship, is an indwelling rather than an affirmation. God cannot be observed, any more than truth or beauty can be observed. He exists in the sense that He is to be worshipped and obeyed, but not otherwise; not as a fact - any more than truth, beauty or justice exist as facts. All these, like God, are things which can be apprehended only in serving them.6

Theology, on the other hand, operates with a different set of parameters. Karl Barth describes theology as a "critical science."

Dogmatics [systematic theology] is the testing of Church doctrine and proclamation, not an arbitrary testing from a freely chosen standpoint, but from the standpoint of the Church which in this case is the solely relevant standpoint.7

Notice what the subject of theology is, according to Barth; it's not God in a direct sense, rather it is Church doctrine and proclamation. That is, the Word of God as it is used in the life of the Church. If all we had to say about God is what Polanyi said, then one could rightly question our theological legitimacy. Rather what I am proposing (and this is not an ingenious invention, this is the heart of the tradition as I understand it) is that theology studies God indirectly. God told Moses to stand in the cleft of the rock; while God passed by, He would shield Moses with His hand. All that Moses was privileged to see was God's backside; God's glory was too overwhelming to see directly.8 Likewise, our study of God is not direct but indirect. We study the Church; we study the scriptures. As the scriptures and the people of God are filled by the Holy Spirit, the study of these objects becomes a study of God.

And studying God from this indirect route allows us to begin to develop a scientific method for going about it. God may not be verifiable, but God's Church is. Theology is a second order phenomenon subsequent to faith in God; it assumes faith, and is built upon faith, although it uses the tools of any other scientific discipline. 

Christian Faith vs. Scientific Facts? 

This rather extended discussion of theology can then be applied to science. Science is also a second order discipline; it assumes faith in a reasonable universe. This assumption is unverifiable, although the sciences have developed a highly complex system which is built on that assumption.

But what happens when "the facts of science" conflict with "the faith of the Church"? Once again we run into another different piece of fruit in our fruit basket. First of all, we in the Church must admit that we have a rather bad record in these sorts of things. The Church has tried to pass off its mistaken presuppositions as facts. The Church turned the platonic concept of the perfection of the circle into a presupposition of the perfection of God. This lack of critical reflection forced them into a situation where they had to try Galileo for heresy (and force him to recant) for challenging this basic presupposition by declaring (in the Copernican tradition) that the planets had elliptical orbits around the sun.9 The same thing is occurring in the creation/evolution debate with some parties making a platonic (rather than biblical) conception of perfection a matter of presuppositional faith.

Nor has science always been the innocent bystander. At the risk of becoming yet another Sagan basher, as one who is interested in serious and honest scientific endeavor I find his authoritative statements on PBS to be particularly bothersome. So it is true that theology and science do at times clash; it is true that they make competing truth claims. But as Christians in science we dare not be duped into thinking that this is a battle of faith vs. reason. If science and theology are at loggerheads it can only mean that one or the other has made an illegitimate assumption; in other words, the faith of either the science or the theology is misplaced faith at this point. Through the process of doubt and reason the presuppositions of both science and theology should then be tested until a new understanding of reality is developed which can embrace both the faith of the theologian and the faith of the scientist. 

Faith and Reason Revisited 

And this leads us full circle (or is that full ellipse since there seems to be more than one focus) to the question of the relation between faith and reason, but this time around, from a different perspective. If faith and reason describe two different aspects of the process of inquiry rather than two poles on the axis of inquiry, is there more to the process of inquiry than just faith and reason? I believe that there is.

Robert March makes the audacious claim that "an idea must be more than right-it must also be pretty if it is to create much excitement..." 10

Creativity in any field has an emotional dimension. This may seem surprising, in view of what we are always told about the rules of scientific objectivity. But these rules only concern the way in which an idea gets its final test. The way in which a new idea arises is usually quite the opposite of objective. And if the idea strikes the audience as beautiful, it is likely to be believed even in the absence of confirming evidence and clung to tenaciously until the evidence against it is overwhelming. The creator of an abstract scientific idea has as much of his personality in it as any artist.11

The Slavs seems to have a better grasp of the importance of this issue. Two illustrations, one from science and one from theology, will have to suffice. Michael Polanyi, for instance, puts great emphasis on simplicity and beauty. In a most interesting recital of the story of the theory of relativity he indicates that the theory's "inherent beauty and power" had a lot to do with its acceptance.12 This is also true of the Russian theological tradition. Such was the primary thrust of Russian theologian Pavel Florensky whose work (described as aesthetic theology) has been highly influential in Russia, even outside the church.13

Faith and reason are certainly an important part of the process of inquiry, but inquiry is a full-orbed human activity and therefore must include aesthetics, intuition (scientific hunches) and passion.14 Once that basic stance of trust (faith) is established, then aesthetics, intuition, and passion lead us to theories which can either be verified or falsified with reason and experimentation. All these can be put to the service of exploring and understanding the creation (or, in the case of theology, the Creator through the Church).

The reason/faith and science/religion question is deeply entrenched in our Western psyche. If we want to avoid being put in the place of "all the king's horses and all the king's men," who were busily trying to put Humpty together again, we need to carefully rethink the issue. Not only do we need to reevaluate the relationship between faith and reason, we need to reevaluate the whole schema which has placed these two complementary aspects of inquiry at odds with each other. 

Bube responds

1990

Notes

1Richard H. Bube, "Penetrating the Word Maze," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 42(2):119-120, 1990. 

2This is not meant to be a definition of theology; farther down we will touch upon that subject. I define theology as a science, so I do see many parallels between theology and the other sciences. My point here is that the physical sciences and theology have two different objects of study. That does not make one inherently more objective than the other, it simply makes them different. 

3Oxford American Dictionary  (New York: Avon Books, 1980). 

4Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958, 1962), p. 272. 

5Bube, "The Word Maze," <PS&CF 42(2):120. 

6Polanyi, Personal Knowledge , p. 279. 

7Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York, Harper & Row, 1959), p. 12. 

8Exodus 33:12-23. 

9See Harold Nebelsick, Circles of God: Theology and Science from the Greeks to Copernicus (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), esp. pp. xxi-xxvii and ch. 5, Copernican Cosmology." 

10Robert H. March, Physics for Poets, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1983), p.1. 

11Ibid., pp. 1f. 

12Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 9-15. Polanyi even makes light of how lay people are taught to revere scientists for the absolute respect for the observed facts..." when in fact, other factors, such as beauty, symmetry, and simplicity play a significant role (pp. 12f). 

13For an accessible introduction to this great theological tradition see Anthony Ugolnik's The Illuminating Icon (Eerdmans, 1989). 

14Polanyi spends a whole chapter discussing the nature and necessity of passion in the pursuit of truth. Passions, like other aspects of inquiry, can both promote and obscure the truth depending on the circumstances, but they are nevertheless an integral part of inquiry. See Personal Knowledge, ch. 6, Intellectual Passions," pp. 132-202.