A Brief History of Faith and Reason

By Katie Bierach

The Tragical History of Divine Comedy: Reasoning Faith while Maintaining Faith in Reason

Introduction by the Author

Reason relies on assumptions in which people put their faith. We need to believe in the same certain things, a code of communicable ideas, in order to reason anything at all. The relationship of faith and reason has a complex history; the two forces are inextricably connected, yet they repel each other when taken to extremes. Does one tend to lend more understanding than its friend? How will they help us in The End? How do they each reveal holiness? Where is God in this picture? The two powers take turns driving our decision-making processes, whispering in ears as they sit on shrugged shoulders. In best cases, the pair can be found ice-skating hand in hand, gliding together in harmony with coolness and ease. More often than not, however, one will gain more power than the other.

Prologue: Reader, Take Heed!

Meet the unexpected on your journey forward

and keep your faith so you can be rewarded.

Have faith here—where reason may not lie,

where reason is more reticent—do not say goodbye.

May faith guide you onward to this story’s close

and yet be reason’s steward as both take heated blows . . .

Chapter One: in which the Medical Importance of Aforementioned Components is Expounded

Millions of people worldwide suffer from faith and reason imbalances. Doctors who prescribe daily doses of faith and reason must first consider the patient’s tolerance for such ideas (as some have weak constitutions); usually the substances should be taken together, with water, in equal parts, as balance is critical for happiness and longevity. Faith is reasonable to a certain degree, and so much faith must be bestowed in reason so that the soul isn’t annihilated in a downward spiral of skepticism and doubt, which may lead to intense existential anguish.

An overdose of either faith or reason is a prescription for madness. Faith, in low dosages, helps us to function in our daily lives: we have faith that the airplane will stay in the sky and that the pedestrian will not jump in front of our cars. Faith can also have benefits in higher dosages, when taken moderately: faith in metaphysical ideas such as immortality can lead to mental health and thereby social cohesion, curtailing violent crime and allowing for physical fitness. Take as directed. Excess levels of faith in the body can diminish its stores of reason without allowing time for it to replenish. Excess levels of faith, also known as Fideism or Blind Faith (generic) may lead to trauma, madness, serious injury, or death. Fideism is the leading cause of heart disease, kidney failure, suicide bombings, midlife crises, and genocide. Side effects may include redness, swelling, intellectual drowsiness, headache, mania, loss of memory or ability to concentrate, itching, hallucinating, or chest pain. If symptoms persist contact your consciousness immediately. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant have an increased risk of fluctuating faith and reason levels.

Reason is also a necessary component of a healthy life. People under age 25 have an increased risk of reason deficiency. Reason, at low-dosages, can enhance vision and confidence, and help you make choices that are right for you and your loved ones. Excess levels of reason in the body can diminish its store of faith, and permanent damage to the body’s faith uptake receptors may occur. Excess levels of reason may lead to depression, nausea, or vomiting. Do not overdose on reason. Side effects may include stomach pain, indigestion, and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. According to a study by Dr. Desiderius Erasmus (1524), free will is a leading cause of reason, which can lead to sin if left untreated. Erasmus also concludes that faith is the only known cure for reason. (Helm 137).

Chapter Two: the Value of Absurdism, in which an Amoeba Dreams of Porcelain Dolls

A note on the previous section: an absurd approach to the relationship between faith and reason serves to emphasize the idea of the academic lens and thereby underscore the inherently warped quality of any vision, as lenses are inescapable. David Hume states that we only know that the world exists, and a divine being could be anything. We do not know the nature of what we do not know. Any ideas we have about God are simply “fancy and hypothesis” (Helm 194). If faith in fancy is reasonable, we must re-define reason. For many scholars, dwelling on questions without answers is unreasonable. What is so serious in this comedy? Human potential?

Absurdism is an effective tactic to shred the illusions of splendor shining on hollow idols and expose a supposed light to be merely a gleam, not a light bulb, as a map, not a territory. Truth is. Not, nothing, no one, no where, never. Is is is. Is. (none). Significance is currency.

A story in concrete nouns: Fake fur coats. Rulers. Carpentry. Stampede! Brushfire. Wind. Sky. That is to say, in abstract nouns: glamour measurement civilization bombardment dishevelment, clarity. The tenor of the symbolism: Birth, life, death, infinity. Ignorance to understanding.

Return, Golden Age! Kingdom of Heaven come! The beauty! The light!

Here we are. In Heaven. Ubiquity. Here.

DNA, a bang and a whisper. A holy smallness, a cinder. Soft cloth waiting for winter.

Chapter Three: Steam from a Kettle, in which a Brief History of Perspectives is Loosed

The relationship between faith and reason has been discussed at length by Christian theologians for centuries. The four popular points of encouragement for religious faith are reason, experience, scripture, and tradition (REST). Writers have used these touchstones to argue the existence of God, the nature of God, the place of religion, and the question of salvation. Atheist arguments for reason defy these categorical distinctions.

Some scholars have used reason to explain their faith as practical, including Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. Anselm’s ontological argument reasons God’s existence as “something than which a greater cannot be thought,” (Helm 88). His faith in his own idea is unreasonable because it is self-defining, but his logic is so good that one can see a harmonious, balanced relationship between faith and reason. Thomas Aquinas states that faith is required in addition to reason because men cannot reason the nature of God enough on his own. Understanding is a step toward love, but if people just have faith and believe from the beginning, they will be more inclined to learn about God. This is Soren Kierkegaard’s idea of the “leap of faith” (Helm 231). The reasons why someone should take a leap of faith are less clear. This leap requires faith in Faith itself. Surely one can live happily with human knowledge and perhaps even have a spiritual experience.

Aquinas continues: if reason were all men needed to find God, then hardly anyone would: too few are able, too few of those survive and work long enough at it (for it takes a long time) and metaphysics does not get studied until after the other sciences (Helm 107). Furthermore, a man who only reasons about mortal things cannot even find earthly wisdom, because his experience is too narrow and judgment too flimsy. The facts accepted as true about men will be far less beloved than what little we know of God (Helm 109). For Aquinas, faith “overcomes reason” yet faith is not necessarily required for Christian salvation, nor do we have reason to trust reason (Helm 112, 114). So perhaps we just need good intentions in our heart, an inquisitive soul toward the divine and a desire to believe in great glory even when it is hard. Aquinas also uses the cosmological argument (which he developed from Aristotle’s idea of the unmoved mover), to show that, as God exists, faith is reasonable (Helm 102).

Others, like Schleiermacher, Calvin, and Newman, argue that personal experience is a reason for faith in God. Schleiermacher, the German romanticist, argues in “Faith as Feeling” that metaphysics and morality are too separate to be combined into religion and then broken up and re-examined in terms of essences and eternal truths (Helm 204, 207). Religion is instead a childlike perspective of the universe, where one can view things as separate and understand experience through intuition and feelings rather than through logic or speculation. Calvin’s article “The Testimony of the Spirit” says that God reveals himself to individuals by calling to them from inside their souls (146). This is problematic because no one can prove if God or the subconscious is speaking, and the choice to believe one view or the other is essentially the choice between faith and reason.

John Henry Newman says that “an accumulation of various probabilities” is sufficient proof for him in the existence of God, and that others will not accept proofs based on principles they do not hold; faith is personal (Helm 252). Our experience of faith is affirming, so we continue. William James argues that we believe in God because we want to believe, because our trusted friends believe, and because our desire is affirmed by our social system. We believe in God because doing so is useful and “we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use” (Helm 241). In case there is a God, rather than living in fear of error and therefore doubting, James suggests we be hopeful and believe in something that will be more useful, rather than questioning everything with our “snarling logicality” (Helm 244). In theory, opening oneself up to possibilities can allow for a personal religious experience. Such an experience may be the most powerful because it is thrust upon us; the very act of submitting to momentary self-annihilation heightens awareness of power greater than ourselves.

Those who cite scripture as the primary reason for their faith stand on shaky ground. Justin Martyr tries to prove God’s existence by pointing to prophets like Moses and miracles given in Scripture (Helm 55). Today, most scholars agree that the Bible is not entirely divine, but contains at least some human contributions. Scripture even reminds readers of human error. Corinthians emphasizes God’s incomprehensibility as he will “destroy the wisdom of the wise,” which is to say that humans cannot find all the truth, but only a small portion which might not even be True (Helm 51). The Bible’s scare tactics help many keep their faith strong, but without a scrutinizing eye, faith can lead people to a state of irrationality, confusion, or destruction.

Tertullian’s “Revelation and Human Reason” rejects Greek philosophers in favor of total devotion to and belief in scripture: humans cannot reason their way to finding God, but should find God the way God meant us to find Him: through His revelation. For Tertullian, humans have no authority in themselves, but only in God (Helm 61). The lack of authority would have people reason that free will causes sin, and the constant waiting for punishment seems detrimental to the spirit, and unreasonable if the point is spiritual salvation.

Joseph Butler accepts and appeals to more reason than Tertullian does, but he is still giving an argument for faith. He states that scripture and nature both have problems but they are both from God, so we should accept them equally (Helm 195). He also argues that hypotheses and analogies are important for arguments as they help to show abstractions that people will only understand when given the context of their own experiences. Butler’s reasoning that if scripture is flawed, nature is flawed, is unsound, but his analogy can be taken more widely to say that everything has its conceptual limits—even faith and reason.

Tradition is a powerful reason for religious faith to continue in that social traditions have personal value and cultural importance. Faith is reasonable on a practical level for civilization to work and for the human psyche to find peace and purpose. According to Emile Durkheim, society lends support and protection to the individual in return for faith in and devotion to the system itself. Thus, religion plays the symbolic role of society, and faith in reasonable tradition theoretically works here. Sigmund Freud, in “Religion as Wish-Fulfillment,” states that Christianity works to provide a Father figure, which people need as they grow into the world and leave their biological fathers, still wishing for protection and fatherly love (Helm 232-34). For Freud, science alone reveals the state of the universe or the mind; intuition provides illusion. Because faith relies on intuition, Freud sees it as a subconscious construct to disguise the hole in the heart where the father was. Here, however, with the lens zoomed out from holiness to humanity, the question takes on a different significance. Freud’s explanation of the relationship between faith and reason shows a preference for reason while expressing the benefits of faith.

Immanuel Kant also argues for faith in the realm of tradition. In “Denying Knowledge to Make Room for Faith,” he begins by stating that a priori knowledge depends on the “thinking subject” and that “pure reason” exists as an entire system from which nothing can be taken to stand alone but only seen in relation to others in the system (Helm 203). The principles of sensibility will narrow speculative reasoning, so we pretend that our interpretations of experiences are “real” when we can only know appearances and never a “thing in itself” (202). Although we can only speculate about whether we are free or determined, we must believe we are free because morality depends on freedom (and God and immortality), and thus deny the knowledge we would have gained through speculative reasoning “in order to make room for faith” (Helm 202). But faith in the social code should not necessarily translate to faith God, in my opinion.

Many atheist arguments about the unreason of faith are grounded in a faith in empiricism. W. K. Clifford, in “The Ethics of Belief,” contends that the standard for honesty and goodness is believing only empirical, rational propositions. People who believe unwarranted claims upset the intellectual ethics of the community. Clifford’s parable of a ship-owner shows that irrational faith can bring a community toward an untimely end, as they cling to the falsehoods disseminated by the powerful. The “sincerity of conviction” does not matter if the believer has “no right to believe on such evidence as was before him” (Helm 238). Faith that denies all rational thought is unethical. It is delusion and insanity.

Norwood Russell Hanson argues in “The Agnostic’s Dilemma” that faith is not an ordinary issue that can be examined through reasoning and the senses, which is why the agnostic falters: he relies on the “fact” of whether or not God exists, and at the same time, the agnostic faults the theist and atheist for their beliefs that cannot be based on fact. Thus, he is hypocritical. Although “God exists” is a factual claim, no description can confirm it; yet agnostics take “God exists” as a claim that could possibly be confirmed, and never disconfirmed. Hanson describes this as “ground-shifting” between “fact-gatherer” and “logician” (Helm 341). To choose consistency and reason is to choose atheism, and to abandon those for faith is theism, but not making a choice does not make sense for Hanson.

John Locke argues that faith and reason are different playing fields (“provinces”). Reason, he says, is “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths” that we make from our ideas, and faith is “assent to any proposition” from God that takes an “extraordinary way of communication” (Helm 186). We experience our world by noting simple ideas and understand our world by combining them into complex ideas. Words are signs that cannot communicate signifiers that have not been experienced firsthand. Locke states that we cannot assent to things that are beyond what we intuitively know because “there would be left no difference between truth and falsehood” and thus no way to ascertain the truths of our world (188). Locke distinguishes traditional revelation, a personal impression from God onto us, from original revelation, secondhand descriptions of others’ original revelations, to show that faith is assent to traditional revelation, but those who assent to scripture without such are really just using their reason, though doing so poorly. Grasping to a fact in regard to the question of ultimate reality inherently commits the act of dualism the truth-seeker is trying to escape. The more someone reaches toward faith in scripture, the more reasoning they will need in order to make their choice seem logical.

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, states that “Reason is nothing less than the guardian of love” (Harris 190). If someone does not understand what it means to love someone or does not value love, allowing that person to continue harming people, for whatever cultural justification, is unreasonable. To have faith in others’ morality or decisions when they defy our reason is to live in bad faith. This is the most extreme opinion: faith is defined as a system of irrational beliefs. Reason, on the other hand, is the beacon of hope for the world. If everyone were to consider their own actions selflessly, it would be better. But reason alone may not have the power.

Chapter Four: Noon upon the Summit, in which the Author Takes her Stand

I can only use reason to make claims of probability, and probabilities have room for error. Still, I live with the faith that nature will maintain its course as usual, a relatively small-scale belief compared with some of Christianity’s theological questions. Faith implies an acceptance of the unknown, while the focus of reason is to ascertain that what is known is factual and see how useful it is. Doubt can drive people to madness or brilliance. Faith can lead to courage or heartbreak. Irrational levels of faith are potentially destructive. A person can do a great deal of reasoning without doing justice to Reason.

A major component of religion and religious discourse is salvation (health) and happiness. To practice faith in the unknown can mean to practice ignoring the present Here and Now, which is to deny happiness and defeat the purpose. As long as one says, “I will be happy” the subtext is that “I am not yet happy.” To have faith in something is to deny the true nature of its existence: formlessness, impermanence. All will fall away. Is there a permanent energy in the universe? I cannot know. By singling out the term “energy,” I am extracting it to a non-functional locale where it is defined in opposition to its surroundings, rather than as a part of a greater whole. But I can write this paper, perform tasks as they come, function in the world with love in my heart and tune my mind to the station of reason.

Chapter Five: Legend, in which the Relationship Ends in a Tragic but Romantic Climax

Faith and Reason, children of Consciousness and Experience, have been appreciated and ignored, tortured and exalted for millennia. Faith, the older brother, ruled peacefully for ages, but Reason grew jealous and betrayed his brother. Reason dominated the land with a heavy staff, and the people grew weary, organizing for revolution. Finally, their cousin, Imagination, son of Fear and Desire, crept up in the night and put a spell on Reason, who fell into a deep coma. But Imagination’s fantasies grew to overpower his will, and his awareness of possibility brought Faith back, stronger than ever before. Imagination told stories to the people, but they could not see without the guidance of Reason. Faith pulled them forward and taught them to work hard. Reason awoke, centuries later, in chains, in the Dungeon of Dogma. He fought Faith for equality, and finally the two edged closer and closer before falling off the Mountain of Knowing together and shattering into pieces for Thinkers to puzzle over and piece together as they ascend the colossal slope.

Epilogue: Press Play

The scene: smoke and mirrors.

Religion: I am voice.

Faith: I am song.

Reason: I am sound.

Enter Postmodernism.

Postmodernism: You are concepts; you are nothing! You are thoughts, only human thoughts. It doesn’t matter, don’t you see?

Mysticism: (see) Truth: I am light.

Faith: There is light.

Reason: I am reflection.

Me: Whether or not—


Works Cited

  1. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith. Norton: New York, 2004.
  2. Helm, Paul, ed. Faith and Reason. Oxford Readers. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999.