faith and reason

Robert Louis Wilken, in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, includes a chapter titled “The Reasonableness of Faith.” In it, Wilken (a Catholic and professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia) examines “the censorious charge that Christian thinking relies on faith, not reason,” which he points out, “is as old as the church itself.” Ancient pagan thinkers such as Galen and Celsus among others expressed this sentiment. In the past couple of centuries as well, modern intellectuals have leveled the same accusation at Christianity. Referencing an expression of this judgment by Edward Gibbon (the 18th century historian), Wilken comments that “it represents only passing acquaintance with early Christian literature and little knowledge of the dialogue between Christianity and Greek and Roman thinkers that lasted for six centuries.”

Thinking and believing go hand in hand: “No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable…Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought…Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking” (Augustine).

Faith plays an important role in our thinking. Augustine, says Wilken, distinguishes between “historical knowledge, which depends on the veracity of the witness, and mathematical knowledge, which is certain and demonstrable.” In other words, we “know” that 2 + 2 = 4 because we can demonstrate it to be true and we can replicate the experiment. But, to use a more recent historical example, we “believe” that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address because we have faith in trustworthy and reliable witnesses to the event. For the Greek philosophers, reason was employed to deduce from what one already knows to a belief in God. But the early Christian thinkers (many of whom were every bit as schooled as their counterparts in the Greek and Roman classical literature) saw the fault line in this approach. “If one begins with proofs and resolves to hold only what can be proven, one will never have done with beginning,” says Wilken, which is to say that deduction can only take us so far back. Moreover, in practical life, we rely upon persons who are authorities for help with all sorts of things: doctors, nutritionists, mechanics, teachers. And we need the witness of the Church in order to know God: “Whether this be a mother teaching her child the Lord’s Prayer, a bishop expounding a passage from the gospels, a missionary explaining the words of the Apostles’ Creed, or someone telling a friend how her life has been changed by Christ, the truth that Christians confess is transmitted through other persons, through the Christian community, the church. There is no way to Christ without martyrs, without witnesses.”

And witnesses do not report in the third person something that they’ve researched and learned a little something about. Witnesses always speak in the first person. Wilken notes that he learned this truth “training lectors to read the liturgy. When I began to work with lectors I thought the most important thing was to read slowly and loudly. But then I began to realize that pace and volume were insufficient. Often the readers did not understand what they were reading. This led me to spend time with them studying the meaning of the passages to be read. But then I sensed that understanding was not enough. The readers had to learn to speak not in the voice of Paul or Isaiah but in their own voice–using, of course, the words of Paul or Isaiah. The text must pass through the life of the lector so that it becomes a living word in the present, not a recitation of what someone said long ago. Only then can the lesson be heard by the congregation as the Word of God.”

This is the challenging and exhilirating truth I find in preaching and teaching as a pastor: that “the text must pass through the life of the [preacher/teacher] so that it becomes a living word in the present.”

The proper place of reason is in working out the doctrinal, missional, and ethical implications of what has been revealed to us by God through his witnesses. This is what the canon of Scripture is after all–the set of books that were recognized by the church (with the help of the Holy Spirit) as being the ones that were trustworthy and reliable witnesses to what God had done and was doing in and through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. What separates the intellects of Augustine and others from their pagan contemporaries (and many moderns) is their experience of the text passing through their lives in such a way that their theological works were produced not by their keen minds alone, but in concert with their devoted lives. Or, to paraphrase Augustine’s words quoted earlier, they thought in their believing and believed in their thinking. May their kind increase in our day.

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