Penetrating the Word Maze

Richard H. Bube
Stanford University
  Stanford, CA 94305

From: PSCF 42 (June 1990): 119-120.

Taking a look at words we often use and misuse. Please let us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

Today's words are:  "reason/faith."

The dictionary definitions:  reason:"a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense";faith:"firm belief in something for which there is no proof; complete trust." [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA (1987).]

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The field on which science and Christian theology are discussed is strewn with dichotomies: false distinctions advanced as the basis for necessary choices. We encounter such dichotomies, for example, between determinism and chance, creation and evolution, and body and soul<197>as well as between God's sovereignty and human responsibility, faith and works, and love and law. But no dichotomy has held a larger portion of the field for a longer period of time than the one between faith and reason. All too often science is upheld as the perfect expression of reason, whereas theology is downgraded as an example of relative, subjective faith. We need to clearly understand what is meaningful about such a comparison, and what is totally false.

In human experience a reason-faith axis can be defined, extending from the purest kind of rational process characteristic of mathematical deduction at one end (ùRú) to the purest kind of faith relationship (ùFú) at the other.

R -------------x-----------------x------------ F
(science)     (theology)

Both science and Christian theology lie on this same axis; they are not at the same point on the axis, but they both partake of the same elements to some extent. Authentic Christian theology is a rational faith; authentic science is a faith-supported rational endeavor.

The dictionary definitions, reflecting common usage, might lead us to believe that science is based on objective facts, whereas theology is based only on personal feelings. These distinctions are useful to point to some differences between science and theology, but totally misleading if taken to indicate some kind of exclusive disjunction between them.

Pure objectivity in any human endeavor is a myth; no "fact" even in science ever provides its own interpretation. The entire scientific endeavor is based ultimately upon a faith commitment: faith that the universe is intelligible to human beings and that the thoughts of our minds can be relevant to the structure of that universe. A person who does not have faith in the possibilities of gaining ¨meaningful knowledge by doing science is unable to do science. The analogous question to "Can you prove the existence of God?" is "Can you prove the validity of a scientific approach?" Both must be chosen on faith before meaningful experience can follow.

If it is true that science is based on faith, it is no less true that theology is heavily involved with a rational assessment of evidence. The Christian position is based on historical data that cannot be ¨ignored in developing an authentic Christian theology. One of the reasons that the Christian faith receives so much opposition is that it is not totally relativistic and subjective. It does not allow an individual the freedom to construct whatever kind of religious system he subjectively chooses.

If the essential aspect of science is a rational approach to questions, it is no less true that major breakthroughs in science often occur as the result of guesses, intuition, flashes of insight, or instances of serendipity, rather than some kind of mechanical logical progression.

Christian theology on its side upholds a rational faith, a phrase that should not be regarded as an oxymoron. A rational faith is one in which the available evidence of every sort is assessed, whether from the biblical revelation, historical events, or community or personal experience, and then on the basis of that assessment a choice is made and a faith commitment is formed.

There is a major difference between science and theology. 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. The scientific approach is essentially reductionistic, focusing on the properties and interactions of the parts of a system; while the theological approach is essentially holistic, focusing on the properties and interactions of persons as whole beings.
But even here the differences are not as absolute as they may seem. The effect of the experimenter on the experiment has been highly documented since modern quantum mechanics, but it is a very common non-quantum occurrence when scientific research is attempted on persons. It has been increasingly realized that the answers one gets, even in science, may depend critically on what questions are asked.

Similarly the Christian's involvement in a holistic personal commitment does not remove the necessity of constantly seeking to know and to understand the revelation of God for today's situation. The Christian is constantly testing the elements of his experience in the light of the biblical revelation and attempting to draw objective judgements.

Since both science and theology are human activities, the role of community is important to both. To be a scientist is to be a member of a particular scientific community, with traditions, ethics, and practices representative of that community. To be a Christian is to be a member of a particular Christian community, with its traditions, ethics, and practices. Ultimate decisions on uncertain matters arise out of a consensus of the community in both cases.

To exhibit both faith and reason is an essential aspect of all authentic human activities. We should not erect walls between science and theology by appealing to false dichotomies between faith and reason.

Does it require more reason to have faith or more faith to be reasonable?